Report – Olayinka strikes and Saliba features as Arsenal U23s draw with Brighton

Premier League 2

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 (Jenks 34 (pen), Cashman 73) Arsenal 2 (Cottrell 45, Olayinka 55)

Arsenal U23s are still waiting for their first league victory of the season after a 2-2 draw away to Brighton & Hove Albion tonight.

The young Gunners weren’t at their cohesive best but still managed to find the net through Ben Cottrell and James Olayinka, although they ultimately had to settle for a point.

William Saliba played the whole game, with the first-team centre-back producing a mixed performance that involved him making an error in the build-up to Brighton’s first goal but also playing a part in Olayinka’s effort.

Daniel Ballard, who was recently capped by Northern Ireland at senior level, came into the side to partner Saliba, while James Hillson was given a rare start in goal and Salah-Eddine was deployed on the right wing, with fellow new arrival Tim Akinola in midfield. Miguel Azeez and Catalin Cirjan were both on the bench, and, rather surprisingly, weren’t brought on. Goalkeeper Ovie Ejeheri received his first callup at this level as he was named amongst the substitutes.

It was a slow start to the game, with both teams evidently still building up their fitness after a lengthy period without any matches. Ryan Alebiosu, who acquitted himself well at right-back, had a shot saved, and then Folarin Balogun, whose future still isn’t resolved, struck the post following a clever flick.

George Lewis was providing a threat on the left flank and he saw an effort deflected out for a corner following good work from Ben Cottrell.

Arsenal continued to create chances, but Balogun appeared to be lacking his usual conviction in front of goal.

Steve Bould’s side were made to pay for their profligacy when Brighton took the lead in the 34th minute, with Teddy Jenks scoring from the penalty spot after Hillson conceded a penalty, with Saliba having made a stray pass in the buildup.

Arsenal managed to pull themselves level before the break, however, with Cottrell finishing neatly after he was teed up by Lewis.

During the first half Arsenal were evidently lacking dynamism, with players not making the required runs off the ball and Cottrell not being able to make the most of his creative qualities as he wasn’t found in space on enough occasions.

The decision to deploy a rather defensive midfield pairing of Olayinka and Akinola somewhat stifled Arsenal’s build-up play, but the former did manage to make a crucial attacking intervention when he scored in the 55th minute with a well-struck effort. Saliba was involved in the buildup for the right reasons this time, playing a well-timed pass.

Hillson made an impressive stop to keep Arsenal’s lead intact, but Brighton continued to push forward and were eventually rewarded, with Danny Cashman cashing in as he scored with a header.

Arsenal brought on Daniel Oyegoke, who pushed forward from right-back, and Jordan McEneff, who was strangely deployed on the left wing, but they were unable to get a third goal and must now turn their attention to the clash at home to Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.

It hasn’t been a particularly pleasing start to the season for Arsenal U23s, but it does need to be taken into consideration that several players in this group are still adjusting having only recently joined, while others are stepping up from the U18s. The uncertainty over Balogun isn’t helping matters, either, and tonight the striker appeared to be rather distracted by off-field matters.

Arsenal’s defensive record in the league since Bould’s appointment – one clean sheet in 20 games – is rather concerning, although Ballard did give a good account of himself tonight. With a lot of players having departed on loan, there is a rather unfamiliar feel to this U23 side, although there are still a few individuals who possess plenty of experience at this level.

Although they may make some mistakes against older players, the likes of Azeez and Cirjan are sorely needed in this team given the creative gifts that they possess. It is hoped, too, that some of the hugely talented U18s will be able to step up before long.

Until then, it may take a while for this team to truly click into gear.

Arsenal: Hillson; Alebiosu (Oyegoke, 80), Saliba, Ballard, Bola; Olayinka, Akinola; Salah-Eddine, Cottrell, Lewis (McEneff, 83); Balogun. Subs not used: Ejeheri, Azeez, Cirjan.

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