Hornchurch 0 Arsenal 3 (Gilmour, John-Jules, Ballard)
Arsenal U23s face a tough task in attempting to retain the Premier League 2 title this season but they showed some encouraging signs tonight in a 3-0 friendly success against Hornchurch.
Charlie Gilmour, Tyreece John-Jules and Daniel Ballard were on the scoresheet for Freddie Ljungberg’s team but Hornchurch had some moments of their own, including when they won a penalty, which was saved expertly by Deyan Iliev, who had conceded the spot-kick in the first place.
Jordi Osei-Tutu and Joe Willock, who featured for the first-team in Singapore, both started and made an impact, while new goalkeeping arrival Karl Jakob Hein made the bench.
Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah remain with the first-team and Gedion Zelalem isn’t yet fit again after injury and Ben Sheaf is also sidelined.
However, there were some notable names on show. Julio Pleguezuelo, into the final year of his contract, captained the side, while Cohen Bramall was deployed on the left wing and Stephy Mavididi started.
There was no place in the starting lineup for Krystian Bielik, who instead featured as a substitute and played in midfield.
Subs: Omole, Saka, Olayinka, Bielik, Bola, Tormey, John-Jules, Hein.
Arsenal went into the game having lost two friendlies in Germany so were eager to return to winning ways but they found themselves up against a spirited Hornchurch team.
Mavididi, who has been linked with a permanent departure from the club, was causing problems for the Hornchurch defence early on with his pace and power.
However, the hosts stood firm and at the other end Iliev had to be alert to make an impressive stop.
Xavier Amaechi was next to try his luck for Arsenal and Willock then had an effort saved.
It was far from one way traffic, however, with Iliev only just managing to cope when put under pressure from a Hornchurch corner.
Despite that, Arsenal’s superiority remained evident and they took the lead when Charlie Gilmour finished adroitly following a well-worked corner routine.
Arsenal continued to place Hornchurch under much pressure and they almost doubled their advantage but Mavididi’s attempt was saved and Robbie Burton’s subsequent effort rattled the post.
Hornchurch, evidently rattled themselves, then almost scored an own goal and were grateful for the half-time whistle.
The first half hadn’t been especially eventful but the second period was full of drama and Arsenal started brightly with Gilmour, whose confidence had been boosted by his earlier strike, sending a thumping effort towards goal, which was deflected wide.
Arsenal had made just one change at the break, with Daniel Ballard replacing Julio Pleguezuelo, but it was Iliev upon who the focus would be on.
The goalkeeper, who recently signed a new contract with Arsenal, conceded a penalty with a clumsy foul in the area.
However, he was determined not to be beaten from the spot and pulled off a spectacular save to preserve Arsenal’s lead and redeem himself.
Then came a host of changes, with Tobi Omole, Bukayo Saka, Joseph Olowu, Bielik, Tolaji Bola and James Olayinka all coming on.
Rather than disrupting Arsenal’s flow, the alterations actually helped them as Ljungberg’s team benefitted from the fresh legs on the pitch.
Amaechi, constantly lively on the right flank, had a shot saved before he was replaced by Nathan Tormey, while John-Jules came on for Mavididi.
Tormey, who has been tormented by injury over the last two years, tore down the right wing and sent an effort over.
John-Jules also sought to make an impact after being introduced and the striker proceeded to do just that as he finished well following a slick move.
Worse was to come for Hornchurch as Ballard made it 3-0 from close range to end the game as a contest.
Hein then received a late run out as he replaced Iliev and Arsenal looked to add further gloss to the scoreline, with Willock and Tormey going for goal.
In the end 3-0 was enough and, although it wasn’t a flawless performance, Ljungberg will be pleased with what he saw from his side.
Next up is a friendly against Bournemouth on Saturday before the title defence gets underway away to Manchester City the following weekend.
Some of the older players in this group could leave permanently or on loan before then but, as the second half showed, there are some talented younger individuals available to Ljungberg.
Saka, only a first-year scholar, looked very lively, as did Tormey, who is looking to make up for lost time.
Gilmour, meanwhile, finished last season strongly and is looking to push on even further this campaign as he looks to make his senior debut, whether at Arsenal or out on loan.
As far as some of the more experienced players are concerned, Osei-Tutu performed very well at right-back and certainly seems to have benefitted from his time with the first-team squad.
The 19-year-old was composed in possession and provided a frequent attacking threat, while Willock was exceptional in the second period having been a little underwhelming in the first half.
Bielik started slowly as he returned from injury but he soon settled into the game and started spraying passes around with ease in his old midfield position. Quite what lies in store for him remains to be seen.
Bramall struggled to make much of an impact on the left wing and, at this stage, it is difficult to envisage him making it at the club.
It will be intriguing to see how Arsenal’s U23 squad changes over the next week with players potentially heading out on loan, but this was a very good workout as the new campaign draws ever closer.