Through two months of the new Chelsea Development Squad season, manager Adi Viveash has been keen to remind people that his group is a very young one and that the 2016-17season is a year-long project to bring a significant number of newcomers along as they go.
Determined to remain even-keeled regardless of the result, he and his team didn’t get too giddy after a four-game unbeaten start to the campaign, and nor will they begin to panic following a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal on Friday night at Stamford Bridge, their second such reverse in five days. A slow start saw them fall behind to Reiss Nelson’s accurate finish and, although a second-half revival brought parity in the form of a Charlie Wakefield equaliser, they switched off late in the game to allow Stephy Mavididi to clinch three points for the visiting Gunners.
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It was arguably Viveash’s strongest starting line-up yet this term, with loanees Nathan Baxter and Jake Clarke-Salter featuring whilst Fikayo Tomori, Josimar Quintero, Isaac Christie-Davies and Kyle Scott all came back in having been rested for Monday’s trip to Reading. Keeping their places were captain Jay Dasilva plus Trevoh Chalobah, Dujon Sterling, Mason Mount and Iké Ugbo.
Arsenal were strong too though, with many amongst their number having been involved in first team action during Tuesday’s EFL Cup win at Nottingham Forest. Ainsley Maitland-Niles saw ninety minutes at right-back at the City Ground but reverted to central midfield here, whilst Chris Willock, Krystian Bielik and Gedion Zelalem will all have been boosted by substitute appearances ahead of this clash. Mavididi and Ben Sheaf were unused substitutes but, having had the taste of a matchday experience, were full of confidence too.
They were the better side throughout all told, starting well and controlling the midfield with Maitland-Niles – the most experienced player on the pitch – exerting his authority from just in front of his back four. Nelson had an early chance down the right but a combination of Baxter and his defence snuffed out any danger, and Chelsea found it hard to match their intensity.
Clarke-Salter did threaten from a corner, Bielik intervening with a header of his own, and Sterling delivered a useful-looking cross without a blue shirt able to get on the end of it. Yet, just as they started to find a rhythm, they fell behind when Nelson was afforded far too much time on the edge of the area, allowing him to open his body and pass a neat finish into the bottom corner, beating Baxter’s despairing dive.
Zelalem did his best to imitate his team-mate with a similar effort moments later but this time Baxter was equal to it, and both he and Mavididi might have done better with good shooting opportunities before the half time whistle. Chelsea’s sole threat in response had been Mount’s goal-bound shot deflected wide, and it was clear something had to change in order for them to stand a chance of getting back into things.
Viveash brought on Wakefield and Jacob Maddox to add a ball-carrying threat down each flank and the former was instantly into his stride, going outside Marc Bola down the Arsenal left and fizzing a testing shot which warmed the palms of goalkeeper Matt Macey. Defensively, however, the Blues remained suspect and it took a fine one-on-one save by Baxter to prevent Nelson from doubling his tally.
Wakefield had made a real difference though, and went close to equalising with a tremendous glancing header from Sterling’s cross which was met by an equally superb save by the flying Macey. Still, he was giving Bola a torrid time and, along with the tenacious Quintero in midfield, helped find a way through in the 66th minute. The Ecuadorian drove his way through the middle of the park before handing over to Ugbo, who saw his shot pushed away by Macey but straight into Wakefield’s path, and he was able to tuck home from a tight angle.
With a now-boisterous home crowd behind them, they sought to take full advantage. Chalobah’s deflected header squirmed agonisingly wide of the post with Macey beaten, whilst Quintero’s solo tackle, run and shot almost found a way past the Arsenal custodian.
Maitland-Niles then offered a timely reminder of his capabilities as he bulldozed his way through before earning a corner with a testing long-range try, and with Chelsea then stretched, Mavididi pounced for the winner with eight minutes left. A long, searching pass from left to right picked him out, and he was able to settle himself before clipping a left-footed finish under the body of Baxter.
It was, on balance, the right outcome but there will have been plenty of lessons to be learned from this one, just as there were from Reading and from Swindon last week too. How they bounce back next time out at Leicester in mid-October will be a good indication of how this season may unfold.
Chelsea: Baxter, Tomori, T.Chalobah, Clarke-Salter (Maddox 45), J.Dasilva (c), Quintero, Sterling, Scott (Ali 89), Ugbo, Mount, Christie-Davies (Wakefield 45)
Subs not Used: Colley, Cumming
Goals: Wakefield ‘66
Arsenal: Macey, Johnson, Bola, Maitland-Niles, Sheaf, Bielik (c), Nelson, Zelalem, Mavididi, Willock, Bennacer (Dragomir 75)
Subs not Used: Nketiah, Keto, Da Graca, Da Silva
Goals: Nelson ’24, Mavididi ‘82
Booked: Nelson, Johnson