Edward Nketiah scored his fourth goal at u23 level to secure a slender but deserved victory for the Young Guns, as they returned to winning ways after a 3-2 away defeat against Liverpool in the second week of December.
Despite the absences of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Krystian Bielik and Reiss Nelson, amongst others, it was still a strong line-up fielded by Steve Gatting. Joseph Olowu made his u23 debut at centre-back alongside Ben Sheaf whilst Marcus McGuane started in a makeshift role at left-back.
Arsenal started quickly and Ben Sheaf’s free-kick flashed just wide with only three minutes on the clock. Savvas Mourgos was impressive on a rare start for the Greek midfielder, and broke the deadlock after seven minutes having been slipped through on-goal by Ismael Bennacer.
Stephy Mavididi rattled the crossbar with a powerful effort of his own, as the young Rams struggling to cope against Arsenal’s probing attack-minded players.
Chuba Akpom made his long-awaited return in an Arsenal shirt as he started and played the first-half, ahead of a possible loan switch in the current January transfer window. The 21-year-old striker came close to scoring a goal of his own but watched as his effort narrowly missed the target. He’ll be eager to put himself in the shop window as he nears 100% fitness after a long-term back problem.
Derby were determined to respond in effective fashion as the second-half got underway, especially as they were only trailing by a one-goal deficit. Lewis Walker forced goalkeeper Hugo Keto into an excellent save, before Timi-Max Elsnik levelled the scoring from a goalmouth scramble in the 52nd minute.
It was Arsenal who ultimately had the last laugh, though. Akpom’s replacement, Edward Nketiah, was the winning goalscorer. A player who flourished in 2016 he will have his sights set on a firm spot in the u23s at some stage over the next calendar year. Both forwards did their reputation no harm with their respective performances, but it was the 17-year-old who stole the show after coming on after the interval.
For the winner after 70 minutes, Nketiah showed good strength and awareness to hold off his marker before a quick one-two exchange with Mourgos. He drove goalwards and made no mistake from close-range, slotting home with a well-placed finish before wheeling away to celebrate.
The Young Guns held out for an important victory given the standings in the league, with fourth-placed Chelsea dropping points away against Tottenham meaning they’re now level (19).
Sunderland, Southampton and Manchester United are all eyeing places higher up in the division, which reiterates the importance of refusing to drop points easily.
Steve Gatting’s side will travel to Staplewood on Monday with Southampton up next.