It was derby disappointment for our development squad at Stamford Bridge as three first-half goals inflicted defeat on the young Blues in Premier League 2.
Home comforts have been hard to come by this term for Joe Edwards’s side and a sixth defeat on our own patch in 11 league fixtures was on the cards by half-time on a mild evening in west London. Eddie Nketiah did most of the damage, scoring twice in 20 minutes before setting up a third for Carl Jenkinson right at the end of the first period.
There was added urgency after the break but our attacking play lacked a cutting edge, while luck also went against us. Substitute Tariq Uwakwe forced the most severe work from the Gunners keeper after his introduction, while Conor Gallagher fired against the woodwork. Daishawn Redan’s goal late on proved only a consolation as capital bragging rights went to the visitors.
There were starts for our two most-used players in the league this term – George McEachran and Juan Castillo – as Edwards made three changes from our last outing away at Liverpool. Luke McCormick, Charlie Brown and Castillo were the returning trio, with Richard Nartey, Uwakwe and Redan all dropping to the bench.
Brown led the line in a 3-4-2-1 system that saw Gallagher and McCormick handed supporting attacking roles from midfield, while McEachran sat deeper alongside Billy Gilmour. Karlo Ziger continued in goal behind a back three of Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi and Ian Maatsen, while Tariq Lamptey and Castillo lined up at wing-back.
Arsenal included 27-year-old Jenkinson in their starting side and matched our shape with three across the back, which aided their bright start. Both Colley and Guehi were forced into early defensive work before Nketiah fired the first warning shot across the face of goal from the left.
The former Chelsea schoolboy bagged a brace when these two sides played out a 5-4 thriller in November and the 19-year-old was on the scoresheet again as the visitors opened the scoring inside 10 minutes. Bukayo Saka provided the assist with a neat pass slipped forward and Nketiah’s left-footed finish was perfectly curled beyond the despairing dive of Ziger.
The Blues improved but struggled to fashion clear-cut opportunities in and around the Arsenal box. Castillo’s cross from the left created a half-chance for Lamptey but Arthur Okonkwo, the Gunners keeper, was positioned well to catch the defender’s attempt. Gilmour then delivered a deep free-kick that Colley contested but couldn’t quite redirect towards the target.
Our blunt attack contrasted with Arsenal’s ruthlessness and Freddie Ljungberg’s side doubled their advantage after half an hour. Nketiah was the man of the moment again, driving purposefully down the right before twisting away from Maatsen and then firing a rising shot into the roof of the net from an incredibly tight angle.
The hosts mustered another encouraging response, testing Okonkwo with a swerving strike from Guehi, before the Arsenal keeper almost proved the architect of his own downfall when stumbling to retrieve a pass back. However, with the ball trickling towards the goal-line, the 17-year-old recovered his composure and quickly regained control and calm.
Edwards’s team talk was looking to be a difficult one but the task facing his side in the second half turned even tougher when Arsenal added to their lead in the final minute before the break. Nketiah switched from scorer to supplier, bursting forward on the break and teeing up the supporting Jenkinson, who had the simple task of converting from a few yards out.
There was more purpose in our play after the restart, with an early goal key to hopes of a comeback. McCormick was thwarted by a last-ditch block before Okonkwo did well to dive low and push away Gallagher’s bending free-kick.
McCormick’s goals have been instrumental for Edwards’s side in recent weeks, particularly in their progression to the UEFA Youth League semi-finals, but the midfielder’s shooting boots were proving less reliable on this occasion. A left-footed effort skewed high into the Matthew Harding End indicated this may not be our day in front of goal. Down the other end, Ziger made an important stop to keep out Saka’s stinging drive as Arsenal threatened to add to the deficit.
The Gunners still had their sights on a second-place league finish but their exertions eased as the game moved towards its conclusion. Uwakwe forced Okonkwo into his best save of the night after 75 minutes, the teenager flying to fingertip the ball over the crossbar, while Gallagher was soon denied by the woodwork as his shot thumped against the post. Meanwhile in our own box, Colley intervened just in the nick of time to head clear off the line as Jordi Osei-Tutu attacked into space from right-back.
With seven minutes remaining, Edwards’s side finally got themselves on the scoresheet. Uwakwe excelled in slotting the ball through the legs of Zech Medley before taking aim for the bottom corner, forcing Okonkwo to parry the ball back into the danger zone. Like all good strikers, Redan was alert and pounced to turn the loose ball home for his 12th of the season. Yet it proved too little, too late to inspire a turnaround as the Blues dropped a place into seventh.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Karlo Ziger; Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi, Ian Maatsen; Tariq Lamptey, George McEachran, Billy Gilmour (Tariq Uwakwe 69), Juan Castillo; Conor Gallagher, Luke McCormick; Charlie Brown (Daishawn Redan 55)
Unused subs Richard Nartey, Jamie Cumming, Martell Taylor-Crossdale
Scorer Redan 83
Arsenal Arthur Okonkwo, Carl Jenkinson (Cohen Bramall 62), Jordi Osei-Tutu, Ben Sheaf (c), Danny Ballard, Zech Medley, Xavier Amaechi (Tyreece John-Jules 78), Charlie Gilmour, Eddie Nketiah, Robbie Burton, Bukayo Saka (Dominic Thompson 83)
Unused subs Hubert Graczyk, Tobi Omole
Scorers Nketiah 8, 29; Jenkinson 45
Referee Will Finnie
-Additional pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom and Dan Davies