Chelsea’s sluggish start to the Under-18 season continued into the month of October with a 3-0 home defeat against Arsenal on Saturday morning.
Second half goals from Kyle Ebecilio, Alban Bunjaku and Josh Rees put a gloss on a scoreline not wholly deserved by the Gunners, who had goalkeeper Damian Martinez to thank for keeping them in the game in spells.
After using such a settled team for much of the campaign, Dermot Drummy shook things up for the visit of his former club. Billy Clifford and Rohan Ince were afforded starts, getting important playing time with no reserve action for another fortnight, whilst there were also places in the team for schoolboy quartet Nathaniel Chalobah, Adam Nditi, Lewis Baker, and Ismail Seremba.
In contrast to Chelsea’s youthful look, Steve Bould selected a physically imposing outfit consisting of a full eleven first year players, although many, such as Elton Monteiro and Martin Angha, had already featured in the team as schoolboys last season.
The match started tamely, with a lack of notable action as both teams were content to feel each other out and get a good grounding in a fixture which has often been tightly fought. It took on some of the characteristics of last year’s goalless stalemate on the same pitch, although there were far more clear cut opportunities on that occasion.
It was the hosts who had the territorial advantage, setting up with a high line and using Chalobah in the anchoring role in midfield to dictate play. Whilst some long distance passes were off target, the ploy kept Arsenal stretched, and as the first half went on, chances emerged.
The first real opening came after some fine work from Nditi down the left. He weaved inside Ben Glasgow and sent a ball fizzing across the box. Todd Kane arrived on cue at the far post but saw his effort brilliantly parried for a corner by Martinez.
The Argentinian stopper has been heralded as one for the future at Arsenal, and made quite the impression on his debut last weekend in saving a penalty. At a club where the first team position is far from secure, he looks to be a prospect and continued to do well throughout the match.
Half chances followed at either end, with Jeffrey Monakana unlucky not to get a good bounce of the ball when meeting a cross on the far side, whilst Chalobah’s downward header was well saved by Martinez on the line.
In the closing stages of the opening gambit it was Drummy’s charges who pressed for a lead, only to find themselves repelled by Martinez. Clifford’s header from a Baker free kick was destined for the inside of the post before it was beaten away to the outside, and when Seremba went through and shot towards the top corner, he was almost wheeling away in celebration before big glove went up to tip it away.
The half had been positive for Chelsea, but with no goal to show for it, a scoreless interval will have brought about words of encouragement from the home changing room. Bould, meanwhile, will have been more concerned, and made a change as Samir Bihmoutine replaced James Campbell at left-back.
If the start of the first half had been average, the second was poor. Scrappy exchanges of possession in midfield rarely led to anything tangible in the attacking third, and when Chelsea were able to open the game, the offside flag went up with alarming regularity. Some of the decisions were debatable, but Arsenal appeared comfortable playing in such a manner.
Kane skied an effort over from outside the box before Drummy made his first change, replacing Seremba as the lone striker with another schoolboy, Walter Figueira. Seremba had done well in an unfamiliar role – the winger looked lively leading the line but was starved of service.
As soon as Figueira entered the fray, the game picked up in pace, and a goal arrived. Unfortunately,it wasn’t when Clifford mistimed a volley, nor was it when George Saville struck a low effort at Martinez on the follow-up.
It was at the other end, and it came courtesy of a player Chelsea were on the verge of signing in the summer. Possession was lost at the back and fell to Dutchman Ebecilio outside the area. Instinctively he drove the ball past Jamal Blackman and into the back of the net. From out of nowhere the visitors had seized a lead, and it came through Jeffrey Bruma’s cousin.
With such moments come great shifts of momentum, and it was therefore unsurprising that Arsenal increased the lead to 2-0 minutes later. A cross from the left was poorly dealt with by Blackman, who could only palm the ball into the path of Bunjaku. The forward will likely never have an easier tap-in throughout his entire career.
Daniel Stenning replaced Kane for the latter stages but Arsenal were comfortable at the back, and Chelsea heads had dropped. Figueira made some encouraging runs with intelligent movement but he was unable to get the better of Monteiro, who towered above him, and with much longer legs, simply ate up the ground on his diminutive opponent each and every time.
Drummy’s final change was to introduce Reece Loudon in relief of Baker in the closing minutes, but as the Blues pressed for a consolation, they gave up a third goal. Martinez seized the ball from a corner and sent a clearance flying down the right wing. Nditi gambled on the interception and missed, allowing Arsenal to break away, culminating in a simple finish for substitute Josh Rees.
The result will disappoint, and on reflection, Chelsea will regret not taking at least one of their chances, but there have been poorer performances this season. For a side including four schoolboys from kickoff and introducing a fifth later in the game, they acquitted themselves well against stronger opponents, and lacked the break of the ball at times.
Ince impressed in defence if only from the perspective of looking more than comfortable in stepping back down, and he had a positive influence on Archange Nkumu alongside him, who had one of his better games this season. In lacking Prosenik through injury, the team approach has to change, and becomes a little easier for the opposition to defend against (largely due to the smaller stature of the attackers), but the young front line worked hard and looked competent.
Arsenal, meanwhile, deserve credit for a professional and patient performance, and for taking their chances. This was their day, Chelsea’s will come around sooner rather than later – but as Drummy reminds us; individual development and playing the right way are paramount at this level, and results come afterwards.
To that end, be positive.
Chelsea: Blackman, Sampayo (c), Nkumu, Ince, Nditi, Chalobah, B.Clifford, Saville, Kane (Stenning 75), Baker (Loudon 85), Seremba (Figueira 65)
Arsenal: Martinez, Glasgow, Angha, Monteiro, Campbell (Bihmoutine 45), Edge (Wynter 88), Ebecilio, Monakana (Rees 60), Neita, Bunjaku, Roberts
Goals: Ebecilio, Bunjaku, Rees