Premier League 2
Chelsea 3 (Brown 17, 56, Mola 31) Arsenal 1 (Cottrell 42)
Arsenal U23s fell to their first defeat of the season tonight as they were beaten 3-1 away to Chelsea despite Ben Cottrell’s first goal at this level.
The prolific Folarin Balogun came close to scoring on several occasions, but Chelsea stood firm and had goalkeeper Jamie Cumming to thank for making several impressive saves.
As has often been the case this season, Arsenal lacked a spark, and they were especially underwhelming at the back tonight, with the central defensive pairing of Harry Clarke and Konstantinos Mavropanos lacking conviction.
Arsenal were still without Tyreece John-Jules due to injury but Trae Coyle joined Balogun in returning to the side.
Subs: Greenwood (for Burton, 87) Not used: Hillson, Olowu, Omole, Medley.
Arsenal started well enough, with Balogun, back from injury, having several attempts.
Tolaji Bola was then booked for a rash challenge on Tariq Lamptey, which set the tone for what was, at times, a tempestuous London derby.
Despite Arsenal’s initial promise, it was Chelsea who opened the scoring in the 17th minute, with Charlie Brown applying the finishing touch to a well-worked team move.
Arsenal sought to respond, with Nathan Tormey, back out wide after previously being deployed up front, rippling the side-netting with one effort following impressive work from fellow winger Coyle.
Cottrell, who was impressive in the first half, then dragged an effort just wide as Arsenal started to get some much-needed rhythm into their play.
Chelsea, however, proceeded to double their lead in the 31st minute, with Clinton Mola’s effort deflecting in off the unfortunate Bola.
To their credit, Arsenal showed impressive determination in the closing stages of the second half as they looked to reduce the deficit.
A well-executed pass from Coyle located Balogun, but, rather unusually, the striker’s effort lacked conviction.
Cottrell made no mistake, though, when a couple of minutes later the ball fell to him, with another shot from Balogun having been saved.
It was Cottrell’s first goal for the U23s and a reward for a half in which he had stood out with an effervescent display.
Arsenal attempted to equalise straight after the restart, with Coyle having a shot saved and Balogun having a penalty claim turned down, the latter claiming he was fouled by Chelsea goalkeeper Jamie Cumming.
Again Chelsea scored when Arsenal were enjoying a good spell, and it was Brown who found the net again, this time with a header after an inch-perfect cross from Billy Gilmour.
The young Gunners continued to press forward but cohesion always seemed to elude them. Coyle shot over and then it appeared that Arsenal were going to be awarded a penalty for a foul on Bola, but offside was given instead.
For all their determination, Arsenal offered little in the way of an attacking threat in the closing stages, although Zak Swanson did see a ferocious effort tipped wide by Cumming, who did well.
Arsenal were forced into a change late on, with Sam Greenwood replacing the injured Robbie Burton, but the forward had little time to make an impact, with league leaders Chelsea taking all three points.
This was, somewhat remarkably, Arsenal U23s’ first league defeat of 2019. They have, though, won just one of their last six games and haven’t kept a clean sheet in a competitive game since the appointment of Steve Bould.
Some may point to Bould as the key factor behind Arsenal’s struggles this season, and it seems clear that he isn’t as enterprising a coach as his predecessor Freddie Ljungberg.
However, it must be stressed that Bould has rather limited resources to work with, certainly in comparison to what Ljungberg had at his disposal last campaign.
With Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock with the first-team, there is a real lack of creativity in this Arsenal side, and the injury to Tyreece John-Jules hasn’t helped overall.
Of the team that started tonight (and not including Mavropanos as he is a first-team player), only Balogun and Cottrell can really be seen as elite prospects, and perhaps Coyle to a slightly lesser extent.
The rest have quality and are capable of producing adequate and sometimes impressive displays at this level, but appear a rather long way from being able to make a major impact for the first-team.
It needs to be taken into consideration that several of these players have only recently stepped up to the U23s on a full-time basis and are still adjusting to the demands of this level, but it is certainly a far cry from last season’s team or indeed the one that won the Premier League 2 title two seasons ago.