Arsenal U23s continued their underwhelming season on Friday night, losing 3-0 to Blackburn U23s despite several high-profile young players featuring.
Eddie Nketian and Reiss Nelson both started, as did Folarian Balogun, but Steve Bould’s side disappointed on the pitch.
A first-half penalty handed Blackburn the lead, though the goal came against the run of play, before Sam Burns grabbed a brace, capping off a man-of-the-match performance.
Nelson showed some nice touches in the second half, while Azeez was praised after the match, but the result leaves the U23s in a disappointing 10th position in Premier League 2.
Here are the main talking points from the 3-0 defeat …
There weren’t many especially noteworthy individual performances in a poor night for the young Gunners.
But if you were to single one player out for their role in the outing, it would be Miguel Azeez, who showed his calmness and composure in possession throughout.
Smart and efficient use of the ball, Azeez was metronomic as he dictated play from the base of the midfield.
He also showed good athleticism and speed to carry the ball forward at times, showing how press resistant he is in deep areas.
Azeez did lose the ball once, handing Blackburn a chance in the first half, though the ball was cleared at him, not passed into him, giving him little chance to control it.
He also produced two excellent saves from the Blackburn goalkeeper Jordan Easton, the first from a freekick and the second a late curling strike from just outside the penalty area.
Nketiah faces uncertain future
Nketiah was making his first appearance for any Arsenal youth team in almost two years.
Since April 2019, he has almost exclusively been a first-team player, oftentimes starting matches, even ahead of Alexandre Lacazette in the closing weeks of last season.
That he is back for the U23s shows the regression he has suffered this season, especially when it comes to his opportunities with the senior squad.
And in this outing, Nketiah did little to suggest that he should be considered above the U23 level. Nketiah struggled to get into the game in the first half, before missing a gilt-edged one-on-one late in the second half.
The young striker is in the final 18 months of his contract. While he has displayed his eye for goal at times, he has failed to consistently make his mark on the first team as fellow academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have.
If Mikel Arteta has made up his mind on Nketiah, knowing that he will not be a regular starter for the senior side, Arsenal might be wise to cash in on him as they look to raise funds for other transfers.
Balogun contract decision looms
That Balogun remains the U23 captain and natural leader of the team shows both his importance to the team and the character he is in the dressing room.
Balogun is in the final six months of his contract and has been linked with an exit at the end of the season.
Arteta, though, has remained confident that a deal can be agreed upon and says that Arsenal are keen to keep the young striker, who played off the left flank on this occasion.
“No, I’m still very positive that Flo is going to stay with us and it’s what we’re trying to do as a club, and it’s what I’m trying to do as a manager,” he said last month.
“As far as I know from last week, the player wants to be here, so I’m positive. I think he’s made some big progress in a few months.”
Balogun failed to make an impact on this occasion, but he will have to make a decision on whether he goes or stays soon.
Nelson must do more
If Nelson’s career trajectory is going backwards, that’s because it is, and his performance here did little to prove otherwise.
Initially playing in central midfield in a 4-3-3, Nelson drifted into wide areas more frequently in the second half but rarely was able to truly impact the game.
By signing up for our Arsenal newsletter, you will receive a once-daily email, focused around goings-on at Emirates Stadium.
You won’t miss a thing when it comes to the Gunners – you’ll get all you need to know directly into your inbox.
We’ll also send out special newsletters with any big breaking news too.
And with the January transfer window now open there’s plenty of content to get your teeth into.
How do you sign up?
It’s easy and only takes seconds.
Simply type your email address into the box at the top of this article – or any article on the Arsenal section of football.london in fact – labelled ‘Get the biggest daily stories by email’ and click ‘Subscribe’.
And that’s it, you’re all set.
If you decide later that you no longer wish to receive the emails, simply follow the unsubscribe link in one of the newsletters – but we don’t think you’ll want to.
For more details, click here.
Central midfield is obviously not Nelson’s most natural and comfortable position, but a player of his calibre should be dominating at this level. And he didn’t.
In fact, not only was Nelson unable to provide any real moments of quality or attacking vibrancy; he was largely bypassed, including missing a key chance in the second half, with Sam Burns stealing the headlines with a terrific individual performance for Blackburn.
There certainly are some silky touches from Nelson here and there, and he was certainly more dangerous once he moved wide in the second half, but comparing his development to Saka’s is stark and concerning for his Arsenal future.