The annual academy league clash between Chelsea and Arsenal is one of the most keenly anticipated on the calendar, and a healthy crowd was attracted to a cold and overcast Cobham on Saturday morning. The game failed to live up to its billing for the large part, finishing goalless, but despite the majority of the game being fought in the midfield, chances came and went for both teams, with Chelsea perhaps feeling aggrieved at two goals being disallowed for offside.
In a changeabout of recent years, Chelsea came into the fixture with the lesser experienced of the two sides. Dermot Drummy paired schoolboy centre-backs Daniel Mills Pappoe and Nathaniel Chalobah, with Aziz Deen-Conteh moved out to left-back after impressing lately in the middle of the defence. Kaby captained the team in midfield with George Saville and Josh McEachran making the usual three in the middle of the putch, whilst Billy Clifford was moved up to the right wing to join Gokhan Tore and top scorer Marko Mitrovic in attack. By contrast, Arsenal used one of their more experienced teams possible, as Steve Bould gave starts to Ignasi Miquel, Cedric Evina, Oguzhan Ozyakup, Luke Freeman and Benik Afobe. First year midfielder Nico Yennaris captained the team.
It was the prolific Afobe – who is due to sign a professional contract this week when he turns 17 – who had the first chance of the match, pulling away from Chalobah at the far post to head Conor Henderson’s cross wide of Sam Walker’s left hand post. It was a free header from no more than eight yards out and he will have been disappointed not to give the Gunners an early lead. It was a quiet opening in terms of goalmouth action, with Chelsea’s first sighter at Sean McDermott’s goal being a Gokhan free kick from 25 yards out which went high and wide.
The midfield battle was quickly becoming an interesting one. Arsenal’s group of the powerful and tall Chuks Aneke with Henderson and Ozyakup, backed up by the tenacious Yennaris were, on paper, likely to be too much for Chelsea’s lightweight trio. However, Saville was quick to engage himself and gave nothing away in the battle with Aneke, who despite garnering a reputation for being one of the shining lights of the Arsenal academy looked cumbersome, easily frustrated (with a poor attitude) and was largely kept quiet, despite having the presence to dominate. It was Henderson who looked most impressive, coming in from the left and playing creative, intelligent football keeping the young Chelsea back line on its toes.
It was the Irishman’s cross from a partially cleared corner which threatened the goal next, halfway through the first period. With good pace and curl, it dipped late and left Walker uncertain of its destination as it came across the area. Fortunately for the hosts, it landed outside of the far post. Chelsea went down the other end and fashioned out the chance of the half, with it starting and finishing with McEachran. The 16 year-old picked up the ball in his own half and sprayed an instinctive cross-field ball to Deen-Conteh without looking, merely needing a shout to identify his target. The full-back surged past Sam Byles and whipped a delightful cross in between goalkeeper and defence, and McEachran arrived on the other end of it, fifty yards from where he first played the pass. All he needed to do was prod it past McDermott but, slightly stumbling, he could only flick it over the crossbar. It was a gilt-edged chance and he knew it.
Half chances came and went at either end, with Ozyakup dragging wide for Arsenal and Clifford heading over for the Blues, before Kaby denied the Dutchman with a clearance from the line when his lobbed effort had Walker beaten from a corner. Neither goalkeeper had actually been forced into a save, and it took until first half stoppage time for one of them to do so, as Henderson drew a neat stop with a fierce shot across goal. Chalobah’s name was taken by the no-nonsense referee as the half drew to a scoreless close, with room for improvement all round.
Arsenal sensed they could get in behind Chelsea, despite Freeman and Afobe being kept largely on the periphery of the game for the first 45 minutes. They took something of a more direct approach to start the second half, with Afobe getting the better of Chalobah physically, and Freeman pestering the bigger, stronger Mills Pappoe. The schoolboy defender injured his foot in a tussle with the former Gillingham striker which affected his mobility, and it allowed Arsenal’s top scorer to have the first real chance of the game for Bould’s side. Walker denied him with a smart grab, but Freeman had seen an opening and was keen to follow up with more.
Chelsea started to threaten from set pieces at the other end, as first Mills Pappoe headed wide, then Clifford saw his goal-bound shot cleared away by Evina, just as Kaby had done before half time from almost the same spot of grass. The chance had been fashioned after McDermott was tackled by McEachran when trying to be too clever in dealing with danger. In a bid to seize control of the game, Drummy introduced Rohan Ince in midfield for Clifford. Ince was making his first appearance of the season after suffering a serious knee injury back in July, and was keen to make up for lost time, immediately getting stuck in.
Freeman had come alive though, and in the space of five minutes drew two superb stops from Walker as he sought his 13th goal of the season. The first came after a tussle with Mills Pappoe left him clear on goal, approaching from the left wing. He had options inside but chose to fire at the near post, but Walker was equal to it, beating it away for a corner. Minutes later, from a similar area but slightly more infield, a shot destined for the top corner was superbly tipped over the crossbar at full reach to keep Chelsea on terms. Walker has made some truly world-class saves this season, and this was up there with the best of them.
It would prove to be Arsenal’s last real sight of goal, as Ince began to impose himself on the frustrated Aneke and drove into the heart of the Arsenal team, allowing Chelsea to flood forwards looking for a goal. He won a free kick 25 yards from goal, which interested both McEachran and Gokhan. Kaby teed the ball up for the Turkish Under-21 winger, who smashed a fierce shot towards goal and was denied by the crossbar, with the ball almost seemingly destined for the top corner. It was as hard a shot as you could imagine, and the frame of that particular net is possible still reverberating right now.
Bobby Devyne came on for the quiet Mitrovic to lead the line, but with Chelsea’s midfield working better than at any point, it could be anyone who was to get the potential winner. They though they had it when Gokhan flicked the ball through for McEachran, who had beaten the back four, but as he slotted it past McDermott he found he had been flagged for offside. Appeals were made, but without great conviction. When the same combination combined for the same outcome in stoppage time, the cries were more vociferous, and they would have had a case, as if there was any offside it was incredibly marginal. In any event, a draw was a fair result and the referee blew for full time seconds later.
All in all, it would have to be a positive point for Chelsea, holding the prolific leaders to a point, and becoming the first team to stop Arsenal scoring in the league this season. On another day McEachran would have been on the scoresheet, or Gokhan’s effort would have crept in, but the visitors will say the same about Freeman’s efforts. The Blues can be happy with their performance, particularly Saville and McEachran in showing that size isn’t everything, coming out on top in their tussle with Aneke. For the visitors, Henderson and Yennaris turned in useful performances, whilst it was a day to forget for Daniel Boateng, who looked clumsy, nervous and error-prone, with all technical ability escaping him. Chelsea couldn’t take advantage, but it was by and large a good showing.
Team: Walker, Sampayo, Mills Pappoe, Chalobah, Deen-Conteh, Saville, Kaby (c), McEachran, B. Clifford (Ince 65), Gokhan Tore, Mitrovic (Devyne 80)
Arsenal: McDermott, Byles, Boateng, Miquel, Evina, Yennaris (c), Aneke, Ozyakup (Deacon 60), Henderson, Freeman, Afobe