Jack Wilshere made his long-awaited return after a leg break, but it was overshadowed as Reiss Nelson stole the headlines.

Monday night saw the first game of the season for Arsenal’s U23 side, travelling to St. George’s Park to face Derby U23. Mirroring the first team, our (mostly) youngsters won from a losing position in a chaotic affair. 

As against Leicester City on Friday night, the contrast in performance levels between our attacking and defensive play was almost alarming.

All the pre-match attention was on Jack Wilshere, with this the first fixture on his latest comeback trail. Also named in a strong line-up were Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin, alongside u23 veterans like Kristian Bielik, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Ainsley Maitland Niles and the free-scoring Eddie Nketiah. 

Jack Wilshere in action against Derby U23s

Despite an abundance of quality and experience, it was a line-up that seemed to pay little attention to tactics or team balance. Anyone who has seen much of Arsenal’s u23s or u18s in recent years will know that defensive solidity is even more lacking than in the first-team, but this was taking it to a new level.

Alongside Bielik in our three man backline were right-winger and central-midfielder Maitland-Niles and left wing-back Cohen Bramall. Bar Wilshere at times and Reiss Nelson in one of the various roles he filled, no-one else seemed remotely interested in defending. Neither did the aforementioned for much of the game. 

With goals midway through the first-half and not long after the break, Derby’s kids (and they were all genuine U23 players) took a 2-0 lead, and shortly after hit the bar. This wasn’t so much due to attacking brilliance or individual errors, but a total systematic failure.

Derby looked like they would score every time they attacked (which was on the rare occasions they had the ball), primarily due to the fact that for most of the match Arsenal had a maximum of three players in their own half.

While one can appreciate that player development is more important then results, I can’t help thinking that actually playing defenders in defence might be worthy of consideration. 

This is a bit of an ongoing bugbear for me, as our age group teams have been defensively awful and tactically shambolic ever since Steve Bould moved up to replace Pat Rice. With the current approach, I’ll be astounded if the club internally produces a centre-half to play even a handful of games for the first-team.

Steve Bould.

At 2-0 down and having narrowly avoided conceding a third, there was a sort of positional musical chairs, and it was quite difficult to tell who was playing where, or indeed what formation we were attempting to play.

The key outcome of this was that Reiss Nelson was freed from his isolated berth at right wing-back and shifted to a sort of roving attacker role, reminiscent of Alexis’ in the first-team following the formation change. 

Within a couple of minutes of this shift Nelson scored with a cleverly controlled volley after a well dug out cross from Jeff. The real moment of quality was yet to come. Three or four minutes later, Nelson collected the ball just inside the opposition half, and essentially ran straight at Derby’s goal.

Having beat a couple of players and backed off a terrified couple more, he lifted a deliciously placed shot into the inside of the side netting from the edge of the area. Even taking the quality of the opposition into account, it was a special goal from a young man who is undoubtedly the club’s finest prospect since his team-mate for the day, Jack Wilshere. Let’s hope he enjoys better luck with injuries.

Reiss Nelson.

Shortly after this, Jack and Le Coq were replaced by Marcus McGuane and Josh Da Silva, and further formation evolution occurred. By this point, most of the Derby players were dead on their feet, and it was almost entirely one-way traffic.

After several minutes camped outside the hosts penalty area, and a few nearly moments, Da Silva (oddly playing on the right) slipped Nketiah into a yard of space just inside the box, and the prolific front man did what he does.

Despite Arsenal’s continued possession domination, there was still time for Derby to nearly equalise more than once, with a last ditch Nelson tackle and a block from keeper Ryan Huddart maintaining the lead.

Ultimately, Arsenal’s superior talent won out, despite an almost complete lack of cohesion or structure, and mixed performances. Derby were much more of a team, but only one or two of their youngsters caught the eye.

Arsenal Player Ratings:

Huddart: 7/10 – Oft left totally exposed, he made a couple of good blocks in the second half without doing anything very impressive.

Maitland-Niles: 5/10 – Not in any way a centre-back despite the club’s insistence in playing him there. Positionally uncertain and at times lacked the requisite defensive urgency. Looked twice the player when briefly allowed to operate in midfield.

Bielik: 6/10 – At least looked and played like a centre-half, albeit an adventurous one. Very good stepping out of defence, but as captain for the day needed to exert more authority over his fellow defenders. Still a little slow on the turn.

Brammall: 5/10 – Like Maitland-Niles, not remotely a central defender, despite being picked there. Even worse positionally and was seldom anywhere useful. Was switched to wing-back after the break and looked comfortable and confident without having much impact. 

Cohen Bramall.

Nelson: 8/10 – As a right wing back until 60 minutes-ish, he was largely anonymous while being competent on the ball, and struggled to affect the game. Once moved in-field and further forward he was the best player on the park by a margin.

Gibbs: 6/10 – Only played the first half, at wing back, and was neat and tidy without creating excitement or ire. A fitness run-out and he treated it as such.

Wilshere: 7/10 – Steady and smart, but played within himself. In terms of distribution he was the best player on the pitch and he could have scored twice in the first half. Looked understandably rusty,  but his loss of acceleration with all his injuries clearly mean he’ll never be the player he looked like being as a teenager. That said, he still showed enough to suggest he can contribute this year. 

Coquelin: 6/10 – his last game at this level was a dominant masterclass. Last night he was just there. Quiet, tidy, composed, not much else. Most memorable moment was springing back to his feet after being cleaned out by an almost red card tackle, showing that he understood, like Gibbs, that this was just an exercise in gaining match fitness.

Willock: 6/10 – The youngest and last remaining brother played further forward than he did in pre-season, but despite always being available and having some nice touches was pretty anonymous.

Reine-Adelaide: 7/10 – Same story as usual. The package of physical and technical gifts should be dominant at this level, but he too often coasts and lacks assertiveness. As ever his positional flexibility was impressive and his lovely chipped cross for our opener elevates his mark.

Jeff Reine-Adelaide
Arsenal’s Jeff Reine Adelaide (L) vies with Southampton’s English midfielder Harrison Reed during the English FA Cup fourth round football match between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary’s in Southampton, southern England on January 28, 2017. Picture: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Nketiah: 7/10  A typical performance from our prolific frontman, showcasing both his strengths and weaknesses. Struggled to get involved for much of the first hour despite decent movement around the box, and lacked the physicality to hold true ball up effectively. Conversely, made a couple of wonderful turns to instigate breaks, and was unlucky not to score before he did, which was a typically clinical piece of finishing. An archetypal poacher, who needs to broaden his skill set in order to have a chance in the first team.

Subs:

Pleguezuelo: 6/10 – Came on for Gibbs in the half-time tactical shift, and at least attempted to play in defence. Sadly his lack of physical development and stunted loan spells mean his future at the club is short-term.

Da Silva: 7/10 – Introduced for the last quarter, and played mostly on the right. Simultaneously looked not entirely comfortable there and pretty effective. Set up the winner and nearly scored himself, but wasted a couple of other opportunities to counter through a lack of quick decision making.

McGuane: 6/10 – Arrived with Da Silva. Lots of energy and looked to make things happen, but didn’t really see enough of the ball to make an impression.