Cheltenham Town 6 (Clements 8, Boyle 32, Maddox 48, 51, Mooney 84, Broom 90) Arsenal 2 (John-Jules 35, Gilmour 66 (pen)
Arsenal U21s’ second game in the Checkatrade Trophy certainly didn’t go to plan as they were thrashed 6-2 by League Two side Cheltenham Town tonight, suffering the heaviest defeat of Freddie Ljungberg’s tenure so far.
There were some mitigating factors – Arsenal played much of the game with ten men following the early dismissal of Robbie Burton, and they were deprived of the services of four players who could be involved for the first-team against Blackpool tomorrow night. It was still, though, a chastening experience for Ljungberg’s team.
Arsenal were without Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Julio Pleguezuelo, who all trained with the first-team today, while Jordi Osei-Tutu, Xavier Amaechi, Joseph Olowu and Tobi Omole are all injured.
Tolaji Bola returned to the starting lineup, while there was a place on the bench for Gedion Zelalem.
Subs: M. Smith (for Sheaf, 29), Zelalem (for Bola, 63), Bramall (for Medley, 90). Not used: Hein, Balogun, Tormey, Thompson.
Arsenal beat Coventry City 3-0 in their first game in this competition, but it quickly became apparent that this would prove to be a rather different challenge.
Deyan Iliev had to make a save in the opening stages and then Arsenal’s hopes of getting something from the game were reduced considerably when Burton was sent off in just the eighth minute for a challenge on Chelsea loanee Jacob Maddox.
It was a case of double punishment for Arsenal, with Chris Clements taking the subsequent free-kick and sending it beyond the reach of Iliev to put Cheltenham in the lead.
Cheltenham could have doubled their advantage shortly afterwards, but, as he has developed a penchant for doing, Danny Ballard made an excellent goal-line clearance.
Bukayo Saka was Arsenal’s main source of attacking inspiration and he did well to find Ben Sheaf, with the latter shooting just wide.
That proved to be Sheaf’s last intervention before he was replaced by Matt Smith, but that change didn’t make Arsenal any more stable at the back, with William Boyle heading in to make it 2-0 to Cheltenham.
Arsenal finally had something to cheer in the 34th minute, with Tyreece John-Jules showing terrific composure to round goalkeeper Scott Flinders before finding the net.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Arsenal went into the break just one goal behind, but that soon changed after the interval, with the impressive Maddox hitting a quickfire brace to inflict further misery upon the young Gunners.
The introduction of Zelalem, who replaced Bola to make his first appearance for Arsenal since January 2017 following his injury nightmare, was a positive sight.
Arsenal then looked like gaining some momentum when Charlie Gilmour scored from the spot after John-Jules was brought down.
However, Kelsey Mooney found the top corner to make it 5-2 to Cheltenham and then it was six, with substitute Ryan Broom sweeping the ball home.
The Arsenal players were left dejected, but this game will serve them with an important lesson regarding how difficult professional football can be if they head out on loan at some stage.
Arsenal face Forest Green Rovers next week in their final group game, but before then the U23s will be determined to get the better of Chelsea on Saturday.