Calum Chambers made his comeback from injury and William Saliba played 90 minutes as the Arsenal u21s topped their EFL Trophy group on Tuesday.
In the last couple of group matches in the EFL Trophy, Arsenal played the likes of Mark McGuinness, Harry Clarke, and Jonathan Dinzeyi at centre-back.
Despite two of them leaving on loan since, and Dinzeyi only just recovering from an injury to make the bench on Tuesday night, Arsenal managed to name an even stronger pairing – with William Saliba and Calum Chambers both dropping down for a game.
Facing Gillingham, Chambers was making his first appearance back following his ACL injury. Meanwhile, Saliba was maintaining his match sharpness in the absence of any first-team action.
Arsenal needed a draw on the night to win the group and qualify for the next stage.
The defensive duo had a solid enough first-half, as Arsenal went in at the break 1-0 ahead. Catalin Cirjan gave the team the lead, poking home after a mistake by Arsenal loanee Zech Medley, but there were no such errors on the Gunners’ end.
Saliba was always forward-thinking in possession, either carrying the ball himself or playing a long pass. He had a few good defensive moments too, shielding the ball out of play or making clearances and interceptions. But he did also look a little nervy at times.
Chambers was similarly willing to play long balls, and he wasn’t particularly tested defensively. He didn’t have to make a tackle or a foul throughout the first 45.
Coming off at half time, it was a successful return for Chambers, but not one which told us particularly much about his current level. Gillingham just didn’t do enough as Arsenal dominated the play.
Levi Laing came on for Chambers at the break, though he took up a place at right-back, with Zane Monlouis moving from the full-back position into the middle.
Those two were the most inexperienced players on the pitch, and perhaps it showed as Gillingham equalised. Another Arsenal loanee, Trae Coyle, made a run in behind Laing and Monlouis and latched onto a lovely over-the-top pass to score.
Saliba was growing into the game, looking more confident on the ball and making more key defensive contributions. However, he had one bad moment when Gillingham’s Dominic Samuel ran in behind, and Saliba took the striker down.
The Arsenal man managed to get a solid touch on the ball, which probably saved him from a red card, but he did make contact with the player first. You could argue Samuel was playing for it, running across Saliba to try and initiate that contact
Regardless, Saliba remained on the pitch and helped Arsenal see out the match at 1-1 to top the group. Overall, he completed 91 passes from 100, made four clearances, one interception, two tackles, and blocked two shots without being dribbled past once.
The two teams then played a penalty shootout, with a bonus point up for grabs (on top of the initial point for a draw).
Trae Coyle stepped up to the spot first, converting his penalty to give Gillingham the lead. Folarin Balogun took responsibility for Arsenal’s first kick, and he finished with confidence.
After that, Samuel stepped up for Gillingham, but after going the right way on the first penalty, Matt Macey guessed correctly again and made sure he kept this one out with his legs. Arsenal had the advantage.
Arsenal summer signing Nikolaj Moller, who played well again, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way for 2-1. Robbie McKenzie then hit the post for Gillingham, giving the Gunners the chance to go two goals ahead.
Ben Cottrell made no mistake, powering a penalty down the middle for 3-1. But Gillingham finally put one of their own away, with Josh Eccles converting to keep them in it.
That gave Catalin Cirjan the opportunity to win the shootout for Arsenal, and he did so with a panenka finish down the middle. The Gunners progress to the next round with eight points from nine in the group stage.
In the end, Ipswich Town losing to Crawley Town meant Gillingham also progressed, so it was a happy enough night all around.
After tight 2-1 wins over Ipswich Town and Crawley Town, a win on penalties over Gillingham was more than enough to ease to the top of the group. In the end, even losing by one goal on Tuesday would’ve been enough to finish in first place.
It’s good that Gillingham progressed, as it should give further chances to Trae Coyle and Zech Medley. Ipswich Town also have an Arsenal loanee, Mark McGuinness, but he was cup-tied after featuring with Arsenal anyway.
The senior teams through to the last-32 so far are Gillingham, Fleetwood Town, Sunderland, Salford City, Shrewsbury, Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale, Lincoln City, Oldham Athletic, Accrington, Portsmouth, Oxford United, Exeter City, Cheltenham Town, Leyton Orient, AFC Wimbledon, Cambridge United, and Peterborough.
The u21 teams to progress so far are Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Wolves, Leicester City, West Ham United, and Norwich City.
Note that neither of those lists are complete, we only have 25 of the 32 so far. Leeds United, Chelsea and West Brom u21s could still qualify, as could a number of senior teams.