Arsenal U18s went into their overall league final against Derby County this week full of confidence having enjoyed an excellent conclusion to the regular campaign, but they ultimately fell short of glory as they suffered a 5-2 defeat against impressive opponents.
Already crowned champions of the Southern section, Ken Gillard’s side headed to Pride Park looking to add another trophy to their collection, but they knew that they would have to cope without a player who has been instrumental to their success.
Folarin Balogun has scored 25 league goals for the U18s this season but was ruled out of the game due to injury.
Arsenal were also without Sam Greenwood, Miguel Azeez and Yunus Musah, all of whom were part of the England squad at the U17 European Championship.
Gillard was able to bring in some high quality replacements, with Bukayo Saka, Xavier Amaechi and Tyreece John-Jules, who have mainly been part of the U23 squad this season, all dropping down to help out the younger age group.
Saka, indeed, scored a brace, but it wasn’t sufficient to give Arsenal victory, while John-Jules missed a penalty in the closing stages, ending any chance of a late comeback.
You couldn’t help but think that Balogun, with his exceptional link-up play and clinical finishing, would have made a significant difference for Arsenal, especially given that he has an excellent understanding with his team-mates.
This defeat will certainly be difficult to take for Arsenal, but when their season as a whole is assessed it will be looked back upon as a hugely impressive campaign, during which several players made significant strides forward in their development.
Midfielder Matt Smith, for instance, was a frequent source of assists and played some sublime passes, while Greenwood, who was mostly deployed on the right wing, added much to Arsenal’s attack.
The vast majority of the players involved this year will now step up to the U23s, enabling a younger batch of prospects the chance to establish themselves in the U18s next season.