Edward Nketiah continued his red-hot goalscoring form with his 10th goal at u18 level this season while Joe Willock equalised from the penalty spot shortly afterwards.
Kwame Ampadu’s side battled hard from a two-goal deficit to snatch a point against Chelsea on Saturday morning.
Ampadu decided to play a 4-2-3-1 shape, similar to the formation adopted by the senior side, making a number of changes to the team that drew 1-1 away against Aston Villa on Tuesday afternoon.
Among them was a recall to the starting XI for creative midfielder Vlad Dragomir and the versatile figure of Josh daSilva, both of whom have UEFA Youth League experience with the u19s this term. Joao Virgínia returned in goal whilst centreback trialist, Zech Medley, and winger Nathan Tella dropped to the substitutes’ bench.
It was the worst possible start for the youngsters though, as Ike Ugbo broke the deadlock after just two minutes. Taking possession on the left-hand side, the talented Nigerian advanced and remained unchallenged before curling an effort towards the bottom corner, leaving Virginia no chance to save the strike.
An end-to-end affair despite conceding an early opener, Arsenal went in search of an all-important equaliser to settle their nerves: after all, they hadn’t lost at home to Chelsea’s crop of u18s for over three years and weren’t prepared to end the run on this occasion.
Donyell Malen had a shot saved by goalkeeper Marcin Bulka whilst the imposing 17-year-old made an instinctive stop to deny Nketiah as the forward attempted to weave past him on his way to goal. Meanwhile Jacob Maddox’s tricky dribbling proved troublesome for the Young Guns’ backline as he almost helped to create Chelsea’s second, but fortunately the post denied Martell Taylor-Crossdale.
Bulka was forced into action again to deny daSilva’s stinging free-kick effort, whilst at the other end Virginia made an important save to thwart what would’ve been a well-worked team goal after build-up play from Dujon Sterling and Ugbo on the flank.
After the half-time interval, Arsenal got more involved in proceedings and had a few notable chances missed before they were made to pay for their inefficiency in-front of goal. Willock’s free-kick didn’t trouble Bulka, whilst Joseph Olowu headed wide at the back post from a corner and Nketiah fired over the crossbar with an effort of his own.
It didn’t seem like it was going to be Arsenal’s afternoon when Taylor-Crossdale doubled Chelsea’s lead, taking advantage of a loose ball in the area to finish ruthlessly. Conor Gallagher felt he was fouled in the area after a pass into his path by Ugbo, but the forward netted his 13th goal of the u18 campaign to extend the visitors’ advantage.
The deficit was halved with 15 minutes to go though, as combination play in the final third between Willock and Nketiah meant the latter was able to use his quick feet to good effect, creating space in the area before slamming low past Bulka.
The finish was well-taken and meant hope was restored amongst the Arsenal players, something that proved pivotal just six minutes afterwards. Nathan Tella, fresh off the subs’ bench, proved a handful to deal with for Joseph Colley. The Swedish youth international made a clumsy challenge and failed to win the ball, giving the referee no choice but to point to the spot for a penalty.
Willock showed composure in a pressure-filled moment to equalise from the spot, and although Chelsea were threatening in the final stages, Ampadu’s talented youngsters held out defensively until full-time, earning a hard-fought draw against the league leaders.
As a result, the u18s remain in 5th place on 23 points, a point behind London rivals Tottenham and West Ham who are level on 24 each. Chelsea (30) and Reading (29) are the pace-setters at the moment in pursuit of this season’s title next February. Southampton (away) is the final game of the u18 Premier League fixture list for the Young Guns this calendar year, before they host Blackburn Rovers in the FA Youth Cup.
u18 side: Virginia; Osei-Tutu, Pileas, Olowu, Bola; daSilva, Dragomir (Tella, 74′); Smith-Rowe, J. Willock, Malen (Coyle 74′); Nketiah. Unused subs: Medley, Crean and Ballard.