Two teams came into Friday night’s Premier League 2 match at Aldershot with unbeaten league records so far this season, but it was Chelsea who left with theirs intact after beating Arsenal 3-1 to stay a point clear of Derby County at the top of the table with more than a third of their matches played.
A Charlie Brown brace either side of the break, with a Clinton Mola volley in between, proved enough to see off an Arsenal team that looked disjointed and lacked consistent impetus. Chelsea weren’t at their best either, but presented a more unified front throughout, and took their chances when it mattered most to secure another victory.
Yes, Arsenal will argue they were without Tyreece John-Jules and Emile Smith Rowe, while losing the likes of Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock to the first team squad, but this was a Chelsea team missing captain Marc Guehi and top scorer Faustino Anjorin, plus Tariq Uwakwe to a fairly lengthy injury absence, and you might even raise the point that Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori are all still age-eligible to feature for the Under-23s.
That rather misses the point, however. This is the new normal for these teams, it’s accepted, encouraged even. When one player flies the nest, an opportunity is created for someone else to step up and continue their journey. Here, 17 year-old Thierno Ballo and recent 18 year-old Henry Lawrence looked increasingly at home at this higher level after graduating from youth team football, while Mola, also still only 18, proved as adept in midfield as he has been at centre back so far this term, and capped a Man of the Match outing with another goal.
Brown, aged 20, is something of a veteran by comparison to his youthful team-mates, but his experience and work ethic has led the way from the first kick-off at Swindon back at the start of August. Rarely rewarded as often as he has deserved to be, he got the Blues off and running after a shaky start when he collected Ballo’s incisive pass and showed composure and class to wrong-foot Karl Jakob Hein in the Arsenal goal with a right-footed finish.
Arsenal had actually produced the better chances early on as the prolific Folarin Balogun twice forced Jamie Cumming into good saves, and winger Nathan Tormey had a pair of chances after Brown’s goal to restore parity. Neither player could find a way through, however, allowing Mola to double Chelsea’s advantage after half an hour with a powerful volley following a poorly-cleared corner.
Had the hosts been able to hold on to a two-goal lead until half time, they’d have been confident of going on to complete a comfortable evening’s work, but Ben Cottrell got one back three minutes before the interval when he reacted fastest to another Cumming save from Balogun, this time unfortunately pushed back out into a dangerous area. That gave the Gunners a lifeline, and it sparked them into life when the teams emerged for the second half. Trae Coyle found space on the right to ask Cumming to answer the bell, and the Chelsea custodian was required again to smother the ball at the feet of Balogun as the pressure mounted.
Myers’ response was to switch to a 3-4-3, deploying Mola on the left of the defence to help reduce the space Arsenal were exploiting down that side of the pitch, but his tactical reshuffle was interrupted by Brown’s second of the evening. Gilmour picked out the striker with a delectable cross from the right, one the goalscorer could hardly miss from, and he headed past Hein to make it 3-1.
Back came Arsenal, and back came Coyle, but his best was matched by Cumming’s best to keep him out once again. If Steve Bould had felt his team were being dealt a weak hand, his suspicions would have been confirmed in the 67th minute, when referee Richard Hulme awarded a penalty for a foul by Dynel Simeu only to discover that his assistant had already flagged for an offside against the visitors.
From then on, Chelsea managed the contest to a finish, while Mola was denied a magical solo goal by the slightest of deflections at the very end, but despite failing to hit the heights they know they’re capable of, they never looked like losing this match. They find themselves at the top of the standings at this stage of the season for the first time in quite a while, and will travel to defending champions Everton next weekend determined to show they have what it takes to wrestle their title away from them.
Chelsea: Cumming, Lamptey (Lavinier 76), Simeu, Wakely, Maatsen, Gilmour ©, Ballo (Lewis 66), Mola, Brown (Broja 83), McEachran, Lawrence
Subs not Used: Russell, Ziger
Goals: Brown 17, 56, Mola 31
Arsenal: Hein, Swanson, Bola, Smith, Clarke, Mavropanos, Coyle, Burton © (Greenwood 87), Balogun, Cottrell, Tormey
Subs not Used: Olowu, Hillson, Omole, Medley
Booked: Bola, Mavropanos