Premier League 2
Arsenal 3 (Balogun 10, 23, 72) Derby County 5 (Sibley 3, Alebiosu (o.g.) 32, Plange 49, Dixon 54, Sibley 56)
By Jeorge Bird @LV Bet Stadium Meadow Park
Arsenal U23s went into this fixture top of the Premier League 2 table, with Derby County at the bottom, but you wouldn’t have known it from what unfolded on a bitterly cold evening in Hertfordshire.
It was evident from the outset that Derby were eager to put Arsenal under pressure, and they succeeded in doing so, with Louie Sibley, who possesses much experience of playing at senior level, catching the eye, while Luke Plange returned to haunt the Gunners.
Coach Kevin Betsy has done much good work since his appointment, but two of his tactical decisions caused difficulties for his team tonight, with Ryan Alebiosu starting as a right-sided centre-back, while, even more bizarrely, Kido Taylor-Hart was deployed as a left wing-back.
Taylor-Hart, who usually plays as a winger, is known for his creative qualities, but, understandably, he struggled defensively in an unfamiliar position.
There were some positives to take from proceedings for Arsenal, not least the performance of Folarin Balogun, who scored a hat-trick, with his third goal being of a particularly high standard.
It has been clear for some time that Balogun is well above U23 level and he certainly needs to be tested in the senior game in the near future.
In addition, Henry Jeffcott made his U23s debut as a substitute, with the left-back acquitting himself well as he helped to add more stability to the Arsenal defence.
Betsy was forced into a defensive reshuffle as he was without Joel Lopez and Omar Rekik due to injuries, while Brooke Norton-Cuffy was missing due to suspension.
In hindsight, rather than using Alebiosu and Taylor-Hart in unfamiliar roles, Betsy perhaps should have used a four man defence and played Jeffcott at left-back, with Tim Akinola in midfield. The three at the back system has benefitted Arsenal hugely this season but at times it has felt that Betsy has stuck with it even when his resources in terms of the back three are limited.
Taylor Foran was given an opportunity at centre-back with James Olayinka at right wing-back, while Nathan Butler-Oyedeji and Joel Ideho returned to the matchday squad as they were named among the substitutes.
Olayinka-Patino-Salah Eddine-Taylor Hart
Subs: Jeffcott (for Taylor-Hart, 63), Akinola (for Alebiosu, 63). Not used: Hillson, Ideho, Butler-Oyedeji.
Plange looked determined to make an impact and forced Ovie Ejeheri into a save before Derby took the lead with just three minutes gone courtesy of a fine finish from Sibley.
Arsenal looked to respond to that early setback, with Olayinka doing well to find Balogun. The striker put the ball in the net but the flag was raised for offside.
Very soon afterwards Balogun struck again and this time it stood, with the England U21 international finishing clinically.
Ejeheri then had to make a save, but Arsenal were growing into the game and Charlie Patino embarked upon a mazy run before going down in the penalty area only for the referee to wave play on.
Taylor-Hart, who was afforded licence to push forward from left wing-back, then shot over.
Arsenal took the lead with their next attack and it was a simple finish from close range for Balogun as he capitalised upon a defensive mistake.
Betsy’s side were in front for just nine minutes, however, with Derby exploiting Taylor-Hart’s lack of defensive awareness again before the ball went in off Alebiosu.
Derby again attacked down Arsenal’s left before missing an opportunity, with Mika Biereth then having an attempt saved at the other end.
Ejeheri made another stop, with the two sides level at 2-2 going into the break.
It was hoped that Arsenal would use half-time to focus on being more resilient defensively, but that certainly didn’t appear to be the case, with Derby creating plenty of opportunities in the early stages of the second half.
Plange, who appears much stronger physically since he left Arsenal, was in inspired form in the second period and he fired Derby ahead.
It was then 4-2 as Connor Dixon got another for Derby and a fifth goal followed, with Plange playing in Sibley, who finished emphatically.
Somewhat belatedly, Betsy then turned to his bench, with Jeffcott and Akinola coming on for Alebiosu and Taylor-Hart.
Arsenal switched to a back four and it is hoped that this is something we will see more of in the near future.
Even in difficult circumstances there were some glimmers of hope for Arsenal and Balogun scored a memorable goal as he feinted to shoot twice prior to unleashing a sweet strike.
Patino then tried his luck with an overhead kick which went over, and there was some further pressure from Derby in the closing stages but they were unable to get a sixth goal.
Overall, this was a disappointing, disjointed display from Arsenal, who have relinquished their place at the top of the table, with West Ham taking over for now.
Betsy deserves much praise for the work he has done this season but tonight demonstrated that on some occasions it would perhaps be better to have more tactical flexibility rather than shoehorning players into positions which they are clearly not comfortable playing.
The midfield didn’t provide sufficient protection to the defence, with Salah-Eddine not at his best. Akinola may feel he now has a chance of reclaiming his place in the side.
All is not lost for Arsenal but they will have to be significantly better against Ipswich Town next week to avoid being knocked out of the Papa John’s Trophy.