Saints's U18 side recorded their second consecutive win against Manchester United. Jason Dodd's men had started their Elite group campaign in patchy form (by their very high standards). The 5-1 loss at Fulham on February 2nd was a big blow, but the team has responded brilliantly since then. Last week Saints saw off Bolton 2-0 in a convincing display. Yesterday they looked even better, scoring a 4-2 victory at the training ground. Saints leapfrog previous league leaders United with the three points.
The all-action contest experienced a very frenetic start. Saints steamed forward from kick-off, and had already created a few openings before Jake Flannigan made it 1-0 on 2 minutes. The goal was all about Gboly Ariybi, who produced a fine bit of skill down the right before crossing the ball into the box. Ariybi was a threat throughout, driving down the wing with pace and trickery. He often switched flanks with the other wide man Sam McQueen, who provided a different sort of outlet. It's often said that teams are most vulnerable immediately after scoring, and that certainly proved to be the case in this match. United hit back a minute later through Josh Harrop. The Red Devils didn't possess the physical prowess of previous Staplewood opponents, but still attempted to mix it, with a few hefty challenges coming in. United picked up four bookings, including one for Ben Pearson, who immaturely called Harrison Reed a 'ginger bastard'.
Saints were well on top for most of the first-half, and were slightly unfortunate to go into the break at 1-1. Ryan Seager, Ariybi and McQueen had chances to put the hosts in front. Once again the midfield partnership of Reed and captain Dom Gape was very strong. Both lads have brilliantly filled the void left by last season's duo James Ward-Prowse and Corby Moore. Gape always looked capable of finding space, even in the tightest of situations. Reed has really stepped it up too. His influence isn't always immediately noticeable, but make no mistake, he is very important to how the team play. It's further evidence that Saints have a plethora of talent in central midfielders at all levels.
Saints started the second half very well, and were asking questions of United long before McQueen made it 2-1. Ariybi and Seager had further chances for the home side. Defensively Saints were strong collectively and individually. The game had just started to get slightly scrappy when the third goal arrived. McQueen eventually finished into an unguarded net following a sustained spell of pressure. The goal couldn't have come at a much better time for the winger, who has had his progress curtailed somewhat by injury. McQueen played a starring role for the U21's at the start of the campaign, but has since struggled for fitness. His display against United was very encouraging. Expect Martin Hunter to come calling again if he keeps performing to the same level.
United inevitably had their moments throughout the game. They hit the post from outside the area, not long before the impressive James Weir found the net with a long range drive. Saints hit back immediately, with Seager finishing just seconds after the re-start. The centre-forward is fresh off representing England U17's in the Algarve. He is without doubt the star of this team, and one of the strongest players in his age group. By this time Seager was playing out-wide, just off of substitute Sam Gallagher, who had replaced Ariyibi earlier in the match. United fizzed the ball about quickly in an attempt to find a third equaliser, but fortunately Saints were far more alert to the danger this time. The hosts got men behind the ball, limiting space for United to play in. It looked as if Saints were in for a nervous last few minutes, before Gallagher wrapped things up from a difficult angle in stoppage time.
A very enjoyable game and a great result for Saints. There were some great individual showings as mentioned above, but this was a real team effort. Everyone did their bit. I was interested to see if there would be any change in the approach, in-line with Mauricio Pochettino's new pressing style. Naturally the intensity wasn't anywhere near the same level as the first team. It's a very difficult style to play, but Saints did still have plenty of energy about them and never sat-off like they have done in previous outings. Many U18 players have progressed to the U21's this season, and in the case of Luke Shaw and Ward-Prowse, the first team. That should give everyone plenty of motivation to succeed, knowing their efforts will be rewarded. It's also a testament to the depth of talent Dodd has at his disposal that the U18's keep producing results, despite the fact that many players have moved up a level or two. Dom Gape and Ryan Seager were handed their first professional contracts not long after the game. Expect more to follow suit very soon.
Johns: 7. Handling very good, made some excellent saves when the game was in the balance
Leggett: 7. Got forward to support the rest of the team. Defensively sound too
Mugabi: 7. Composure on the ball is improving. Good reading of the game
McCarthy: 7. A natural leader, constantly talking to his teammates and organising the back four
Wood: 7. U16 player didn't look overawed against older opponents
Reed: 7. Has really come into his own recently. Makes everything tick in midfield
Gape: 7. One of Dodd's most consistent players this season with another decent outing
Ariyibi: 8. Stepping up to the plate following Omar Rowe's promotion to the U21's. Created numerous openings out of nothing with his pace and skill
Flannigan: 7. Excellent movement and a well taken goal
McQueen: 8. A much needed goal, and a good all-round display. Delivery on the ball very good
Seager: 8. Another fine showing. Continually got in behind players. Yet another goal
Gallagher: 7. Made a decent impact, with another goal
Higgins: Solid cameo
Hesketh: Very intelligent play in the closing stages of the game. Did well to play out time