Premier League 2
Derby County 2 (Cresswell 40 (pen.), Shonibare 43 Arsenal 3 (Taylor-Hart 50, Balogun 70, Bateman 83 (o.g.))
There have been two rather significant clouds hanging over Arsenal U23s this season. Firstly, Folarin Balogun’s future at the club, and also the threat of relegation.
It is now looking likely that both of those issues could soon be resolved with a positive outcome. Balogun is reportedly set to sign a new contract with the club this week, and tonight he was part of an U23 side that came from behind to win 3-2 away to Derby County and move seven points clear of the relegation zone.
In truth, there was a considerable amount of fortune involved as Derby dominated the first half and Joel Lopez was lucky not to get sent off, but at this stage of the season Arsenal will take a victory however it comes, especially as it brought an end to a woeful run of eight games without a win.
Miguel Azeez was named in the starting lineup despite being on the bench for the first-team yesterday, while Zane Monlouis filled in at right-back in the absence of Ryan Alebiosu.
Catalin Cirjan wasn’t in the squad, with George Lewis the only attacking option on the bench.
Subs: Bola (for Lopez, 90). Not used: T. Smith, Awe, Foran, Lewis
It was evident from the outset that Derby would put Arsenal under much pressure at every possible opportunity, and Karl Hein was forced into a save early on to deny Josh Shonibare.
Derby then felt they should have been awarded a penalty following a challenge from Tim Akinola on Cameron Cresswell, but nothing was given.
The hosts had another penalty claim turned down shortly afterwards, with Cresswell involved again as he collided with both Hein and Jonathan Dinzeyi.
Arsenal were struggling to create any opportunities and were thankful for Dinzeyi, who made an important header to clear the danger while under pressure.
Eventually, however, Derby were rewarded for their perseverance as they were given a penalty following a late challenge from Lopez.
The Spanish defender may have been involved with the first-team recently, but this was a reminder that he still has much to work on if he is to be a success at the highest level.
Cresswell dispatched the penalty as Derby took a deserved lead.
Lopez was penalised for another challenge before the end of the first half and was fortunate not to be sent off for reacting petulantly by kicking the ball away.
Arsenal went into the break 1-0 down, but that didn’t tell the story of just how dominant Derby had been, with Bould’s side failing to carve out a single goalscoring opportunity in the first 45 minutes.
Immediately in the early stages of the second period there appeared to be a greater sense of determination from Arsenal, and they finally managed to create a chance of sorts as Akinola’s effort took a deflection before being tipped over by Derby goalkeeper George Sykes-Kenworthy.
From the resultant corner Arsenal managed to pull level, with Moller nodding the ball down before Taylor-Hart did well to turn prior to finishing exquisitely.
However, the lead didn’t last for very long at all, with Derby capitalising upon some over-exuberance in possession from Azeez.
There is no question that Azeez is a fantastic passer but he does demonstrate a lack of defensive awareness at times, and he was caught out on this occasion, with Shonibare racing forwards before finishing.
The blame for the goal didn’t lie entirely with Azeez as Dinzeyi should have been more forthright in attempting to deal with the Derby player.
Derby threatened to inflict further misery upon Arsenal, with Cresswell shooting wide.
Arsenal, though, were starting to provide more of an attacking threat themselves, and Balogun produced an excellent cross but Moller was unable to connect with it.
Cresswell sent a free-kick over but then Arsenal were level and it was Balogun, Arsenal’s main source of inspiration, who scored with a composed finish after a good cross from Trae Coyle. It was Balogun’s ninth goal of the season at this level and was another reminder of why he will soon be going on to bigger and better things at Arsenal.
Derby felt they had done enough to win the game, but they ended up losing it, with Coyle the architect again as he swung in a free-kick and Joe Bateman inadvertently turned the ball into his own net.
There was still time for further drama, with Lopez committing another foul and, rather fortuitously, escaping getting another yellow card.
Bould reacted by bringing on Tolaji Bola for Lopez for the closing moments.
Luke Plange, who recently left Arsenal for Derby, was thrown on by the hosts late on but couldn’t prevent the young Gunners from getting a much-needed win.
There is evidently much for this set of players to work on, but, despite the fortunate nature of the victory, there were some positives to take from proceedings.
Balogun was lively throughout, while Alex Kirk performed well at centre-back in the second half and Coyle showed some encouraging signs as the game wore on.
Azeez and Lopez were rather brought back down to Earth following their involvement with the first-team, and the latter seems some way off being ready to be considered as a genuine option for Mikel Arteta’s side.
This win, though, will give Arsenal a confidence boost going into their final three games of the season which see them face Leicester City away before successive games against West Ham United, with both teams also looking to avoid the drop.