Folarin Balogun underlined his first-team potential with a starring 38-minute appearance against Chelsea on Sunday, in a 6-1 thrashing.
Building on their run of recent wins since the opening-day defeat to West Ham United, Kevin Betsy’s Arsenal u23s faced Chelsea on Sunday.
Folarin Balogun had scored twice against Manchester United a week earlier, and he got another start alongside summer signing Mika Biereth up front.
It was Balogun who opened the scoring early on. With less than five minutes on the clock, the striker received the ball from Joel Lopez and turned his man to get into the box before being brought down for a penalty.
Though Balogun saw his ensuing spot-kick saved by the legs of the goalkeeper, he turned it in on the rebound for 1-0.
Balogun then turned provider midway through the half, with a cross-field long pass which was expertly volleyed home by Biereth for 2-0.
As Chelsea were licking their wounds, Arsenal pounced again, scoring almost directly from the kick-off as Charlie Patino played Balogun in for his second goal and third direct goal contribution of the match.
Then came a moment that could well have changed the game. Omar Rekik brought down a Chelsea attacker on the edge of the box, and though the referee deemed it to be just outside the area, he sent Rekik off for denying a goalscoring opportunity.
The decision was very controversial, with the Chelsea fans insistent it was inside the box, and the Arsenal fans insistent that it wasn’t a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Regardless, the sending-off stood and Chelsea started to push for a way back into the game. Arsenal withdrew Balogun for defender Reuell Walters to maintain their lead.
Just as it looked like Chelsea might grab a goal before the break, the precise opposite happened.
Tim Akinola made an interception and beat his man to run into open space before finding Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand, who laid it off for the overlapping Ryan Alebiosu. Alebiosu cut the ball back for Biereth, who finished first-time to make it 4-0.
Chelsea made three changes at the break, in an attempt to add to their attacking options and get back into the game against Arsenal’s 10 men. But they continued to struggle to find a way past Arsenal goalkeeper Karl Hein, who made a couple of strong saves.
James Olayinka came on for Akinola, making his second substitute appearance after a recent injury, and he was quickly involved in a fifth goal for the young Gunners.
Olayinka capitalised on a poor pass to get into the box, and when his shot was blocked it fell to Biereth to complete his hat-trick.
To complete the humiliation for Chelsea, they then scored an own goal to divert in an Oulad M’Hand corner.
Fortunately for the scorer, Lewis Hall, he then went up the other end and scored in injury time to at least cancel out the damage he’d done and ensure Chelsea scored at least once in 53 minutes of having an extra man on the pitch.
That’s probably not much consolation to a side that conceded three goals to ten men.
Arsenal were bright from the first whistle, putting together some very smooth plays to race into a commanding lead in the early stages.
Kevin Betsy has them playing some very nice football at the moment, and they’re now just one point off Manchester City at the top of the table.
Folarin Balogun was the star of that opening half an hour, and he deserves to be involved in the first-team game on Wednesday. The positive of Omar Rekik’s red card and Balogun’s substitution after just 38 minutes is that’s now a realistic possibility.
Mika Biereth has somehow been overshadowed despite scoring a hat-trick, but he deserves full credit for some fantastically clinical finishing on the day.
Biereth only really had four big chances in the match, and he scored three of them and forced a diving fingertips save with the fourth. He now has five goal contributions in five games for the Arsenal u23s.
I’m wary of adding to the large amount of hype already surrounding Charlie Patino, but it has to be said he was very good again.
Other than perhaps taking more risks in possession in his own box than he needed to, he was a constant menace to Chelsea and kept a number of moves alive when others would have turned over possession.
There were strong performances all over the pitch. Joel Lopez and Ryan Alebiosu were very good in the channels, Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand and Tim Akinola seemed to be on top form. When you win 6-1, it’s a given that most of your players will have played well.
Arsenal u23 lineup vs Chelsea
Hein, Monlouis, Rekik, Ogungbo, Lopez, Akinola, Salah, Alebiosu, Patino, Biereth, Balogun
Walters, Ejeheri, Hutchinson, Taylor-Hart, Olayinka
There may be a chance for one or two members of this group on Wednesday in the League Cup, though likely not huge numbers of them.
After that, Arsenal travel to Manchester City in a top-of-the-table clash on Saturday, September 25th at 15:00 BST.