Premier League 2
Derby County 2 (Gordon 25, Jakobsen 56) Arsenal 3 (Nelson 61, 65, Nketiah 80)
Arsenal U23s came from two goals down to win 3-2 away to Derby County at St George’s Park tonight, with Eddie Nketiah scoring the decisive goal in an enthralling contest in the young Gunners’ first game of the new Premier League 2 season.
A strong Arsenal side featuring Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs fell behind against Derby, with the hosts doubling their advantage after the break.
However, Arsenal’s quality eventually prevailed with Reiss Nelson, off the back of an outstanding pre-season, proceeding to score a brace; his second goal of such quality that it was scarcely believable.
The prolific Nketiah then applied the finishing touch to Arsenal’s comeback and, just like the first-team, Steve Gatting’s side have commenced the campaign with a dramatic victory.
Arsenal have a plethora of options to choose from at this level and they used their full quota of outfield senior players as Wilshere, Coquelin and Gibbs – players who once used to feature in such fixtures on a regular basis – were all called upon.
Gibbs played 45 minutes, while Wilshere and Coquelin were withdrawn with 17 minutes of normal time remaining.
Arsenal started with three in defence, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles again deployed as a right-sided centre-back, while Cohen Bramall filled in at left centre-back.
As a measure of Arsenal’s strength in depth at this level Matt Macey, Chiori Johnson, Jordi Osei-Tutu, Tafari Moore, Tolaji Bola, Charlie Gilmour, Vlad Dragomir, Ismael Bennacer, Jon Toral, Savvas Mourgos, Aaron Eyoma and Fortune wer all not in the squad tonight – surely there will have to be a lot of departures, either permanently or on loan, before the window closes, otherwise there will be a lot of unhappy players.
Subs: Pleguezuelo (for Gibbs, 46), McGuane (for Wilshere, 73), Dasilva (for Coquelin, 73). Not used: Keto, Malen.
Arsenal started impressively and played some neat passes, with one move culminating in the sprightly Nelson cutting the ball back for Reine-Adelaide, who should have scored when well placed.
Derby then threatened at the other end as Kellan Gordon shot over but it was Arsenal who were largely in control in the early exchanges.
Wilshere, making his first Arsenal appearance at any level for almost a year, missed two opportunities before later teeing up Nketiah, who was offside.
As the half wore on Derby started to make more of an impact with the holes in Arsenal’s rather unconventional setup being exploited.
Before the break it was Derby who took the lead as, following a misplaced pass from Maitland-Niles, the ball eventually fell to Gordon, who slotted calmly past Huddart.
Derby could have had a second before the break after a rare mistake from Krystian Bielik, but Huddart was alert to keep out the danger.
Gibbs was withdrawn at the break, with Pleguezuelo entering the fray, meaning Bramall switched to left wing-back.
Nketiah, who was constantly seeking to get into dangerous attacking areas, shot wide before Nelson, bursting forwards down the right flank, saw his cross gathered by Derby goalkeeper Joshua Barnes.
However, Arsenal remained vulnerable defensively and Derby took full advantage as Emil Riis Jakobsen got the better of Huddart after latching onto a through ball.
It could have been 3-0 – and potentially game over – within an instant but Derby substitute Luke Thomas rattled the crossbar.
Derby had been forced to withdraw Gordon and Max Bird, two of their standout players, following injuries but the Rams continued to play with much determination.
Arsenal needed to change something and they certainly did that with a switch to a back four taking place. That saw Maitland-Niles move to right-back, while Nelson was freed up to push forwards and cause all sorts of problems for the Derby defence.
The alteration in formation also helped to bring the best out of Reine-Adelaide and it was the Frenchman who located Nelson, with the latter reducing Derby’s lead with a neat finish.
Nelson certainly wasn’t finished there, however as just four minutes later he embarked upon a superb, direct run, with Derby’s defenders simply unable to catch up with him. What followed was rather spectacular as Nelson found the net with a stunning strike – another reminder, if one was needed, that this is a very special player indeed.
Derby missed a great chance to immediately make it 3-2 and then Nelson, epitomising his all-action display, made a precisely-timed defensive intervention.
Wilshere and Coquelin were replaced by Marcus McGuane and Josh Dasilva, with the latter pair eager to make an impact.
They certainly did that and Dasilva was there to set up Nketiah, who scored his first of what will surely be many goals this campaign as he made it 3-2 and rounded off the comeback.
The job wasn’t quite done yet for Arsenal as Huddart had to make a couple of stops in quick succession but Steve Gatting’s team held on and secured a memorable victory.
Nelson’s performance was certainly the standout feature of the game and the 17-year-old will surely be back involved with the first-team before too long.
Wilshere, meanwhile, showed some good touches but is evidently still working his way back to full sharpness.
Arsenal are back in action against Manchester City at Emirates Stadium a week today – that could prove to be another enthralling encounter given the quality that the respective teams possess.