By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Arsenal 3 (Hinds 6, 90, Mavididi 89) Derby County 2 (Guy (pen) 30, McDonald 90)
If all of Arsenal’s U21 games finish in the same manner as the first two then we are going to be in for quite a season.
After securing a late, but fully deserved victory over Fulham at Emirates Stadium last week, the young Gunners found matters considerably tougher against a spirited Derby County side tonight, but, despite a frantic finale in which three goals were scored, Steve Gatting’s side prevailed with a 3-2 victory.
The win was secured without the services of Gedion Zelalem, who is in Scotland to finalise a potential loan move to Rangers.
Arsenal started the game in emphatic style and took a deserved early lead through Kaylen Hinds, who returned to the side after injury. Derby levelled from the penalty spot before the interval, however, and a draw appeared to be on the cards until Stephy Mavididi headed in from substitute Aaron Eyoma’s cross with just seconds of normal time remaining.
The drama didn’t end there, though, as Hinds struck again in stoppage time only Derby to pull a goal back almost immediately.
It was breathless stuff at times, but, ultimately, Arsenal managed to prevail and they did so courtesy of some stellar performances, not least from goalkeeper Ryan Huddart and captain Julio Pleguezuelo. Hinds also deserves much credit for his hard work and intelligent finishes.
Huddart was drafted in to start the game, with neither Matt Macey or Deyan Iliev making the squad. Macey and Iliev were at the ground, but their absence from the team-sheet suggests that one or both of them could train with the first-team squad tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, Ben Sheaf moved centrally in the absence of Zelalem, with Jeff Reine-Adelaide switching to the right flank and Hinds operating behind Mavididi. Chris Willock and Tyrell Robinson were back on the bench, with Savvas Mourgos and Yassin Fortune dropping out of the squad.
Subs: C. Willock (for Reine-Adelaide, 66), O’Connor (for Sheaf, 73), Eyoma (for Moore, 86). Not used: Robinson, Keto.
Mason Bennett, who featured in a memorable victory for Derby over Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup in 2011, had the first opportunity of the game as he outmuscled Sheaf in midfield before seeing his long-range effort gathered by Huddart.
Arsenal found themselves under pressure in the early stages, and they were indebted to Pleguezuelo for making a superbly-timed challenge to cut out the danger on one occasion. The Spaniard was calm and authoritative throughout and, from his point of view, it is a shame that Arsenal have four available options at centre-back as otherwise he would be a lot closer to the senior squad.
Arsenal soon started to click into their usual rhythm and they scored with their first chance of note as Reine-Adelaide, having drifted out to the left flank, sent in a dangerous cross which eventually found its way to Hinds, who finished adroitly.
The Gunners could have doubled their advantage shortly afterwards, but Mavididi could only head wide from Hinds’ cross.
Arsenal were left to rue that miss as Derby then equalised from the penalty spot after Huddart fouled former Arsenal team-mate Alban Bunjaku in the area. The goalkeeper went the right way as he attempted to keep out Callum Guy’s spot-kick, but he was unable to prevent the opposition from equalising.
Huddart then made a good save to keep out a header from Bennett but it mattered little as the offside flag had already been raised.
Arsenal squandered opportunities through Mavididi and Reine-Adelaide, but, despite Gatting’s team being in control for the vast majority of the opening period, it was Derby who ended the half the strongest, with the visitors having a goal ruled out for offside before Huddart had to make another good save to deny Bennett.
The second-half was a less fluent affair, but there was plenty of drama right from the offset. Alex Iwobi, who worked hard all evening without having much going his way, had a shot saved, but, although Hinds finished well with the follow-up, the flag was raised.
Huddart then excelled himself further with another great save, providing additional evidence to suggest that he should be the club’s regular first choice at this level, despite him being younger than Macey and Iliev.
Derby were causing all manner of problems for Arsenal by this point as they struck the post with one effort before having a shot deflected wide.
Gatting attempted to change matters by introducing Willock in place of Reine-Adelaide, who had impressed in patches but did lose possession rather easily on some occasions.
Huddart was called upon yet again to keep the scoreline level as he continued to prevail in his personal duel with Bennett. Pleguezuelo had a header saved at the other end, but it was Gatting’s remaining substitutions that would help swing the game in Arsenal’s favour.
Firstly, Stefan O’Connor was introduced for his maiden appearance of the season in place of Glen Kamara. The change saw Bielik, who had struggled at centre-back, move into his preferred position of defensive-midfield and Arsenal looked more assured as a result.
Aaron Eyoma then replaced Tafari Moore and it was from Eyoma’s cross that Arsenal would score their second goal, with Mavididi rising high to head home emphatically.
That looked to have won the game and Hinds’ neat finish in stoppage time added further gloss to the scoreline. Derby weren’t finished yet, however, as they immediately raced down the other end and reduced the deficit through substitute Shaquille O’Donald, despite Huddart’s best efforts.
That late goal mattered little in the end, though, as Arsenal secured their second win in succession. This was a less aesthetically pleasing performance than last week, but the young Gunners did show terrific resilience during a challenging second-half.
Their next assignment is against West Ham at Emirates Stadium next week, when they could be up against Reece Oxford, who was watching the game this evening.