Arsenal’s unbeaten second string beat Chelsea’s on Monday night in comfortable fashion, running out 2-0 winners against a Chelsea team captained by Joe Cole, still making his way back towards full match fitness. Goals from Craig Eastmond and Sanchez Watt ensured a torrid night for the Blues, who were outclassed for the majority of the match.
After last Tuesday’s young and inexperienced team won at Wolves, Steve Holland was able to call upon many more recognisable names and faces for one of the toughest fixtures on the calender. Ross Turnbull started in goal for the first time since the opening game, and Under-21 trio Jeffrey Bruma, Sam Hutchinson and the debuting Nemanja Matic were held back to feature before jetting off for international duty. Holland utilised a 4-3-2-1 formation with Cole and Daniel Philliskirk behind lone striker Fabio Borini, who made his first team debut a fortnight ago.
Arsenal started well, moving the ball around with the ease and comfort you’ve come to expect from them, but they weren’t penetrating the Chelsea ranks, and it was the Blues who had the first sight of goal. Conor Clifford broke up possession and slid a ball into Borini’s path, and the young Italian held off veteran defender Mikael Silvestre whilst going wide, before managing to test James Shea from a quite remarkable angle. It was to mark the way the first half was to go, with the hosts keeping the ball whilst Chelsea looked to counter.
The Gunners had their own first chance a few minutes later when Francis Coquelin headed over at the near post from a Mark Randall corner. They then looked to take advantage of Turnbull’s indecisive nature – something which cost the second string massively in the 4-0 defeat to Aston Villa – when he came to collect a stray ball but hesistated along his way, leaving Watt to intercept and feed Kerrea Gilbert. The right back looked to plant a shot over the former Middlesbrough goalkeeper but the ball sailed over his head and the crossbar.
Midway through the first half Arsenal got the lead their play had deserved, and it was their first real opening of note. Bruma had decided to go on an attacking foray which had been broken up, and he was out of position as Arsenal countered. The ball in from the left was flicked on by Watt as Bruma arrived back, was mis-kicked by Hutchinson, and Craig Eastmond beat the slew-footed Turnbull to the ball before maintaining his balance to slip the ball in from the byline. It was an ignominious way to go behind, but it was about right on the balance of the game.
It was a balance Chelsea set about redressing, and it took four minutes from them to go very, very close. A free-kick some 25 yards out offered Bruma a chance to show off his increasingly impressive technique, and indeed he did, striking a lovely effort over the wall and beating Shea, but struck the outside of the goalpost. Such margins are so fine in football, and as if to illustrate that point Arsenal went straight down the other end and wasted a glorious chance when Nacer Barazite, in plenty of space, found himself caught between passing and shooting and found that familiar middle ground in putting the ball precisely nowhere of use.
In closing on half time Nikki Ahmed made a fine interception and surged forward with blue shirts in support, but felt that his play had deserved the chance of a crack at goal. It was a shame that the effort went frustratingly wide. At the other end Watt’s finishing wasn’t evident, as he put one over from six yards, having struck wide and high from the edge of the area earlier in the half. Conor Clifford picked up a booking, and goalscorer Eastmond almost put through his own net when Gilbert smashed a clearance off of him, fortunately rolling just wide of the post.
The need for a quicker approach to the game in the second half, both physically and in the use of the ball, was not lost on Holland and Milan Lalkovic replaced the ineffectual Daniel Philliskirk. His lively closing down gave a renewed energy, but Arsenal still had the opening chance of the second stanza, Mark Randall putting a free kick over after it was dubiously awarded for a foul on Sanchez Watt. At the very least though, Chelsea were pushing the issue when out of possession and some tenacious work from Borini almost resulted in a chance for Cole, but the ball just didn’t roll, as it failed to for most of the night in truth.
Bruma was booked for clattering Coquelin whilst partner Hutchinson was replaced by young Danny Mills, so impressive at Wolves last week. A rare lull in the game was broken by an opportunistic attempt from distance by Randall which Turnbull did well to save, having not been centred in his goal. They didn’t have to wait long to beat him for a second time though, as they grabbed the clinching goal two minutes later. Sala was caught in possession – not for the first time on the night – and Barazite seized on the chance, driving forwards and sliding the ball across goal where Watt awaited to slip it between Turnbull’s legs and into the back of the net.
It broke Chelsea’s spirit, but Lalkovic did keep plugging away and his cutback from inside the area would have found Borini on another night, but on this luckless night it rolled agonisingly out of his reach. The final stages saw Turnbull make saves from Watt, Murphy and Sunu, whilst Arsenal had some drama when Shea suffered a foot injury. Without a replacement on the bench, the Irish youth international struggled on, ably assisted by a stout defence on their way to a fourth clean sheet in a row this season, and indeed yet to concede. Bruma’s late free kick found the wall, and the hosts were comfortable winners come the final whistle.
For all of Chelsea’s efforts and hard running, they were second best all over the pitch and were deserved losers. Cole and Matic were involved but disappointing, clearly off the pace, whilst Sala was often sloppy in a deeper midfield role. Clifford was his usual combative and industrial self, and Nikki Ahmed had a good game at right back. On this night though, time to reflect on being outplayed on both a team and individual level, by what was simply a better team.
Team: Turnbull, Ahmed, Bruma, Hutchinson (Mills 57), Gordon, Clifford, Sala (McEachran 81), Matic, Cole (c), Philliskirk (Lalkovic 45), Borini
Booked: Clifford, Bruma, Mills