After the senior team and under-18s went head to head in the first weekend of the month, the reserve teams of Chelsea and Arsenal completed the trifecta on Monday night with a pulsating and entertaining derby at Griffin Park. Despite putting in an effort full of energy, tenacity and effort, Chelsea missed a number of chances in front of goal and fell to a 2-1 defeat to a clinical Gunners team who didn’t really force Rhys Taylor into a notable save.
With the FA Youth Cup just 48 hours away on the schedule, Steve Holland’s line-up was an experienced one, including four players who have been out on loan this season (Rhys Taylor, Nana Ofori-Twumasi, Liam Bridcutt and Jacob Mellis) alongside first-team squad trio Nemanja Matic, Gael Kakuta and Fabio Borini. Daniel Philliskirk was also rewarded for Friday’s goalscoring outing in the youth team with a start. On the other hand, Arsenal gave starts to four players who had played at Cobham on Feb 7th (Cedric Evina, Ignasi Miquel, Conor Henderson and Luke Freeman) but also had the football league nous of Nacer Barazite and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. The latter, playing as a striker on the night, would prove to be an integral figure throughout.
Holland’s tactics were evident right from kickoff. On an appalling surface where players would have to be sure of their touch and refrain from quick, fast interchanges, Chelsea buzzed about at quite a tempo, harrassing Arsenal and giving them no time to settle on the ball. With the exceptional fitness levels of Bridcutt and Mellis alongside Matic’s disciplined long stride, they were the first to assert themselves on things, forcing the visitors into errors and mistakes, which in turn caused frustration amongst their youthful ranks. They did have the first effort in anger though, Freeman driving high and wide from the edge of the area on his left foot.
The pitch caused an early worry for Taylor, who almost fluffed his lines in dealing with a Magnay backpass. It was concerning enough to warrant Holland to demand that no further backpasses were played, and to counter the unpredictable surface, Chelsea’s centre-backs were being encouraged to play long, angled balls into the channels behind either full-back, to stop them playing in more advanced roles. When Arsenal defended deeper, a slower ball with a loopier trajectory aimed at Matic was the order, and it was through these options that they came into the game in the final third. Kakuta nearly found an opening from a fine Mellis pass but was flagged offside, whilst Magnay stayed alert in defence to head away a fizzing cross from Freeman.
Midway through the first half, Borini went closest to opening the scoring with a spectacular effort which deserved to find the back of the net. Good approach play flicked the ball into his path on the shoulder of Miquel, who he rolled and smashed a beautiful volley which had goalkeeper James Shea beaten to his left hand side, but came rattling back off the crossbar. Inches lower and it was finding the top corner, but such a moment of technique and instinct was not to result in a goal. Five minutes later, the Italian contrived to miss two much easier chances as his night became more frustrating. Matic flicked a long ball down to Mellis, who squared across the face of goal. Borini shot left footed but failed to get hold of it, and with the goal gaping even more on the rebound, failed to make contact with the ball as Arsenal cleared. It would prove to be his best chance of the match, but not his last.
He didn’t let the misses discourage him, and was quickly back in the thick of the action, turning and bending an effort towards the far post from twelve yards out, but it was narrowly wide. Back in Chelsea territory, Emmanuel-Thomas had a clear sight of goal but concentrated on power ahead of accuracy and sent his shot flying high over the crossbar. Up to that point, the giant yet versatile number 9 had appeared disinterested and was almost cruising through the game, yet he was key to Arsenal opening the scoring five minutes before half time.
In a battle for possession on the halfway line, Carl Magnay was left out of position but in possession. Instead of heeding Ofori-Twumasi’s advice to opt for safety first, he tried to play through the middle and got caught out. Emmanuel-Thomas burst through to the edge of the area, stood his ground as Bridcutt bounced off him, and squared to allow Freeman to slot him his first ever goal at this level. It was a display of pace, skill and absolute power, and was the difference between the teams at the break. Chelsea had been by far the better team and had made a greater impression, but lacked a cutting edge in the final third and stared a deficit in the face at half time.
The second half opened with a chance for Kakuta to have an impact on the match in the form of a long-range free kick, but his shot was tame and disappointing. It summed up his performance in truth, largely on the periphery of things on a pitch not at all conducive to his playing style, and whilst he worked hard to win possession back, he failed to have a creative impact on proceedings for the majority of the match, only coming alive in the late stages. Borini meanwhile was in the thick of things and was soon to be denied by the woodwork for a second time. Kakuta’s aforementioned closing down saw the ball deflect between Ayling and Miquel, and the Italian Under-21 international was off to the races. A heavy touch took him to his left side, with Shea scrambling, but as he shot the ball bobbled and took it on a different path, onto the outside of the post. It had looked easier to score, but summed his night up completely.
It didn’t get any better. Another closed down pass in midfield fell kindly for him and once more he outpaced the defenders, who were slow to turn. From the right side of the area, his latest effort soared high into the upper tier of the empty stand behind the goal. His disappointment was tangible, but Holland continued to encourage him, believing he would find the net eventually. Whilst he was struggling, Arsenal were looking more and more dangerous on the break, and after Taylor did well to divert Frimpong’s volley over the crossbar, they countered with swift precision to extend the lead. Once more it was Emmanuel-Thomas who was involved, running down the right, playing the ball across the box until it found its way to Gilles Sunu. The Frenchman’s shot was hardly convincing, but it hit Magnay and left Taylor stranded as it trickled over the line.
That appeared to be that, but it look less than twenty seconds for the one-goal difference to be restored. Kakuta found some space on the left to cross, Borini helped it on its way and Matic tapped in at the far post. A healthy crowd of well over 1,000 was now boistrous and everything was set for a grandstand finish. Henderson could have ended any Chelsea hopes when he failed to arrive on time to meet Emmanuel-Thomas’ cross after the hitman had embarrassed Strickland down the right, and with a roll of the dice, Holland introduced Nikki Ahamed in midfield for Philliskirk.
The chance to equalise came in the 89th minute, and fell to Kakuta. The ball came down the right and in-field to Borini, who held it up well and turned it onto the Frenchman, who was advancing with intent. A touch settled the ball, but the shot across the face of goal went inches the wrong side of the post. Four minutes of stoppage time saw a series of long balls into the Arsenal area cleared, and there was to be no equaliser. Chelsea played well, the better of the teams on the night, but failed to take their chances. Arsenal, to their credit, ensured they were able to stay in the game despite the hosts’ pressure, and looked dangerous on the counter attack the longer the game went on. At the end of the day, Emmanuel-Thomas, the strongest and most dominant individual on the pitch, made all the difference.
Chelsea’s midfield, from a tactical point of view, was impressive. Bridcutt showed his vigour and strength as the anchorman, winning a series of challenges and keeping the game flowing from a blue perspective. Matic was maturity personified and always looked dangerous in possession, whilst Mellis’ direct and fast approach transitioned midfield to attack. The trio all have experience in the professional ranks, whereas Philliskirk, the fourth member of the unit, does not, and it showed, as he was a step below on the night. Borini worked tirelessly in attack and deserved a goal, but it was another disappointing ninety minutes for Kakuta in the second string. At the back, Taylor was unflustered, Magnay led well, Strickland did well for three quarters of the game and used well but grew frustrated at not being able to tackle Emmanuel-Thomas, whilst both full-backs got forward well but failed to deliver in the final third. As a team performance, it was a good showing, but ended with the wrong outcome.
Team: Taylor, Ofori-Twumasi, Magnay, Strickland, Gordon, Bridcutt (c), Matic, Mellis, Philliskirk (Ahamed 83), Borini, Kakuta
Goals: Matic ’76
You can view Dan Davies’ photographs from the match here: Daniel Davies Photography.