Premier League 2
Arsenal 3 (Akpom 21, Osei-Tutu 78, Pleguezuelo 90) Derby County 3 (Vernam 11, Bennett 45, Babos 59)
By Jeorge Bird @Meadow Park
Captain Julio Pleguezuelo scored a dramatic late equaliser as Arsenal U23s came from behind to secure a 3-3 draw at home to Derby County tonight in an enthralling encounter.
The young Gunners, who were deprived of the services of some of their most talented players, weren’t at their best tonight and were especially vulnerable defensively but they showed excellent spirit to salvage a point.
A Derby team containing some experienced players such as Ikechi Anya and Jason Shackell proved difficult for Arsenal to deal with and the visitors took the lead in the 11th minute when Charles Vernam found the net.
Chuba Akpom levelled for Arsenal but Mason Bennett struck to put Derby back in front before the break.
Alex Babos extended the Rams’ advantage further still in the second half and Derby had additional opportunities to find the net.
However, Arsenal, despite losing Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Krystian Bielik to fresh injuries, somehow managed to claw their way back into the game, with Jordi Osei-Tutu continuing his impressive form by making it 3-2.
Pleguezuelo then struck to salvage a point for Arsenal, for whom substitute Trae Coyle impressed on his competitive debut at this level.
Arsenal were without Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Josh Dasilva, who all trained with the first-team today, with Yassin Fortune brought in for a rare start, while Akpom, Marcus McGuane and Tolaji Bola also came into the side.
The other alteration saw Matt Macey replace Deyan Iliev in goal. Coyle and Tobi Omole were on the bench, as they were in the FA Youth Cup earlier in the week.
Osei Tutu-McGuane-Reine Adelaide-T. Bola
Subs: Coyle (for Fortune, 63), Gilmour (for Reine-Adelaide, 66), Eyoma (for Bielik, 87). Not used: Iliev, Omole.
Arsenal enjoyed a lot of possession in the early stages of the game but initially found it difficult to break down a well organised Derby defence.
Eventually, the young Gunners started to make inroads, with Reine-Adelaide having an effort blocked and Dragomir’s attempt later hitting the side-netting.
Derby’s quality couldn’t be discounted, however, and, after Macey made an impressive stop, the visitors took the lead courtesy of a low strike from Vernam which was beyond the goalkeeper’s reach.
Arsenal looked to respond, with Akpom dragging an effort wide and Bola then having a cross cleared away.
Arsenal managed to pull level as Akpom, on his 50th appearance at this level, found the net from close range after Ben Sheaf’s initial effort was blocked.
The game then started to open up a little more, with Sheaf constantly pushing forwards from defence to provide Arsenal with a useful attacking outlet.
Arsenal looked to be gathering attacking momentum but it was Derby who went into the break in the ascendancy courtesy of a goal from Mason Bennett, who capitalised following an error from Bielik.
Bennett was hugely impressive as Derby staged a shock by knocking Arsenal out of the FA Youth Cup six years ago, but, rather like Akpom, he has failed to build upon the superb performances he produced at youth level as a teenager.
Macey had to be alert to make an excellent stop at the start of the second half and Derby proceeded to put Arsenal under a considerable amount of pressure.
Bielik had some encouraging moments during his time on the pitch but was clearly rusty after a long lay off and started to make mistakes.
At the other end Fortune, who has been on the periphery of proceedings this season, was lively and came close to finding the net, but Derby remained a major attacking threat.
Indeed, it was Derby who scored next, with Babos making it 3-1 after the visitors’ initial effort struck a post following a weak kick out by Macey.
Coyle then made his U23 debut, replacing Fortune, and the first-year scholar added dynamism to Arsenal’s attack.
There was still much work to do at the other end, though, with Bola making a good intervention and then Sheaf clearing the ball off the line as Derby continued to push forwards with regularity.
Arsenal suffered another blow when Reine-Adelaide, who has endured much misfortune with injuries since joining the club, hobbled off yet again, this time being replaced by Charlie Gilmour.
With time running out Arsenal were determined to reduce the deficit, and McGuane and Dragomir both tried their luck.
It was Osei-Tutu who managed to get Arsenal’s second as the right wing-back, who also scored against Manchester City last week, fired in after latching on to Coyle’s teasing cross.
Buoyed by that goal, a point now seemed attainable for Arsenal.
Gilmour should have done better than to scuff his effort wide when well placed and then Aaron Eyoma entered the fray, with Bielik following Reine-Adelaide in going off injured.
Five minutes were added on at the end but Arsenal only needed four to get their goal, with Pleguezuelo scrambling home, sparking jubilant celebrations.
Macey still had to make another stop to prevent Derby from scoring what would have been the eighth goal of an entertaining game, but Arsenal managed to take a point from proceedings.
Overall, this wasn’t the most cohesive performance from Arsenal and the absence of some of their star players was certainly felt.
The back three of Sheaf, Bielik and Pleguezuelo weren’t at their best defensively but they did help Arsenal to build up attacking momentum from defence.
Reine-Adelaide is still struggling for form and fitness and needs to be managed more carefully as he clearly wasn’t ready to start his second game in just five days, while McGuane lacked sharpness on his return to the side.
Fortune and Vlad Dragomir provided glimpses of brilliance in attack and Akpom worked hard up front, but it was the youngster player in tonight’s squad, Coyle, who really stood out with a cameo appearance that was a marked improvement on the one that he produced just two days previously in the FA Youth Cup victory over Sheffield Wednesday.
Arsenal are third in Premier League 2, seven points adrift of leaders Liverpool, who they will face in their first game of 2018.