26/10/2013: Liverpool U18s 3-3 Saints U18s
With James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers currently starring for the high flying first team, the academy remains as relevant as ever. Mauricio Pochettino has repeatedly stated his desire to see as many home grown products in his squad as possible. With that in mind I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to take a look at Jason Dodd's U18 side, specifically the game against Liverpool on Saturday.
The U18s have experienced mixed fortunes in terms of results so far this season. Saints lost their first two against Everton and Tottenham, but have recorded four impressive wins since, including comprehensive hammerings over Blackburn and West Brom. The trip to Merseyside arguably represented the toughest challenge to date. Liverpool had plenty of experience within their ranks. Harry Wilson recently made his full international debut for Wales, while striker Jerome Sinclair has already played for the first team. The Reds also handed a debut to Pedro Chirivella, a recent pickup from Valencia.
Saints got off to the worst possible start, going down 2-0 inside the first 15 minutes. Dodd has been looking to implement Pochettino's pressing style into his own squad, but his team sat off early on, allowing Liverpool control. Wilson opened the scoring on 4 minutes, with Daniel Trickett-Smith doubling the lead on 15. Saints were wasteful going forward in the first half on the rare occasions they did manage to get hold of the ball. That said, Marcus Barnes did have a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside. Sam Gallagher then missed a one-on-one. The Scottish U19 international could have taken an extra touch, having latched on to a great through ball from Jake Hesketh.
Saints completely turned the game around in the second-half. Dodd's boys established control of the middle of the park, thanks in part to the introduction of George Mells, who replaced Charlie Higgins in the 38th minute. Saints started pressing and were soon rewarded, forcing Liverpool into a series of mistakes. Gallagher wasn't at the races in the first-half, but was unplayable after the break. Strong in the air and on the ground. His link-up play was impressive and he even did his share of defensive work, making a brilliant overhead clearance from his own penalty area. It was Gallagher who got Saints back in it on the hour with a composed finish from a Kyle Clinton pass. Saints opened up their opponents with several counters, including one which led to the equalising goal. It was the impressive Hesketh who scored. Just when it looked as if Saints would go on to claim all three points, disaster struck. A Joe Hart/Matija Nastasic type mix-up between keeper Harry Isted and Joshua Debayo led to a simple tap in for Sinclair. Saints pushed hard for an equaliser, and were finally rewarded in the last minute. The intense pressing paid dividends with Gallagher smashing in after Saints had disposed Pool at the back. It was the least Dodd's side deserved for an excellent second-half performance.
Saints have been spoilt in terms of youth products in recent years. Three of last season's second year scholars are now in the first team, while many of the current 17/18 year olds have already established themselves in the U21 setup. While there isn't necessarily one obvious stand-out individual in this team there is still plenty of quality within the ranks.
Tom Leggett and Jake Hesketh were definitely the pick of the bunch at Liverpool on Saturday. Both were in and around the squad throughout last season, but have been given more prominent roles this term. Leggett is really embracing his new duties as captain. The right-back has the intelligence and awareness to compete at both ends of the pitch. He's confident bringing the ball forward and nearly always makes the right pass. Hesketh is quick and has the ability to create chances out of practically nothing. He threaded a number of defence splitting through balls past the Liverpool back-line on Saturday, and also caused his opponents problems with his dribbling. Both Hesketh and Leggett are playing for professional deals. They have a very good chance of earning a contract if they keep to the level they are currently performing to.
Isted's mistake was particularly unfortunate, because prior to that he had looked extremely assured and composed. For all the success Saints have had at youth level in recent years, we haven't really produced a truly outstanding keeper yet. Isted could well be the best one for quite a while. You can see why Debayo was given a professional deal recently. The former Chelsea man possesses great intelligence and positional sense and rarely mistimes his tackles. Marcus Barnes didn't play quite as well as he has done previously, but still provided an assist. Most of the other players had their moments throughout the 90 minutes. The stakes have been raised even higher due to the first team's progress, but you wouldn't bet against one or two of these lads featuring at senior level in one way or another in the next few years.