Saints and Citizens clash on the south coast for U18 National glory


The country’s two best U18 academy sides will go head-to-head at St.Mary’s Stadium in a battle of South vs North for the U18 Premier League National title.

Whilst the Premier League 2 displays a mixture of U23 talent, senior players playing for fitness and some of the best U18 players, the U18 Premier League strictly only includes those talents aged 18 or under.

Life as an academy player can be hard, often bouncing between different age group setups, as well as potential first team call ups or loans. What this also means is that age-group teams are also forced to work around the plans of their ‘superiors’, and if the senior team or B team come calling for one of the best U18 players, they will have to relinquish them.

Oftentimes, if a player under the age of 18 is highly rated they will be switched between the U18s and the B Team, firstly maximising their opportunities but also getting valuable minutes in their legs.

As a result of this, teams in the U18 Premier League often will vary greatly from week to week. Some weeks it will have almost all of their established U18 talents, and others they will call upon players from the fringes of the U18 squad or promote players from younger age groups when their top talents are called upon elsewhere.

Consequently, for those U18 teams, it can be difficult to pick up ahead of steam in your league, and the strength in depth of the academy is tested throughout a season.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that two of the most highly regarded academics in football square off in the final for the national U18 Premier League crown, as Southampton from the south take on Manchester City of the North.

Saints’ remarkable revival –

The story of Southampton’s academy success is well documented, with players like Alan Shearer, Wayne Bridge and Dennis Wise amongst many others that came through the ranks on the south coast. However, the influence of Southampton’s academy is ever-present in the Premier League today, with Southampton’s own James Ward-Prowse getting worldwide recognition for the qualities he has displayed with the first team.

As well as current players such as Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Matt Targett, all products of the Southampton academy setup who went on to play first-team football for the Saints before having successful careers elsewhere. Additionally, players who never made first-team appearances for Southampton also passed through the academy setup and went on to find success, such as Arsenal’s Ben White and Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings.

However, there has been the argument that the Staplewood conveyer belt has dried out, with fewer talents breaking through and declining performances amongst academy teams over recent years. Michael Obafemi has proven to be the most recent academy graduate gaining regular football at a high level, with the 21-year-old getting 15 goal contributions (12 goals, 3 assists) in his debut Championship season with Swansea City, despite an injury-marred start with the club. Other recent graduates such as Yan Valery have fallen out of favour and sit on the fringes of the Southampton squad, whilst their most recent bright young graduate Nathan Tella has struggled for first-team minutes.

Whilst many of Southampton’s talents are yet to break through at the senior level yet, there has been renewed faith in the academy setup this season amongst fans, with improving B team performances, and of course, the standout success of the U18s.

The age group teams suffered a negative ripple effect from a catalogue of first-team injuries last season for the Saints, with B team players forced into premature senior call-ups, U18 players being called into the B team and so on and so forth. Unsurprisingly, this negatively affected the performances of the U18 side, who consequently finished bottom of the U18 Premier League South Division.

Squad depth was added amongst the ranks and remarkably, just a year after finishing bottom of the same league, the Saints were crowned champions of the U18 Premier League South, thanks to a sensational run of six straight wins to cap off the regular season.

Carl Martin’s side finished the campaign on 62 points, a staggering 49 points more than they managed the previous year. For the Saints to even be in the National final is a tremendous achievement in itself, but the hosts will not want it to end there as they will have their eyes set on National glory in front of their home fans.

Doing so will prove easier said than done against one of the most prolific academies in English football Manchester City.

Winning mentality throughout the City setup –

It has been 14 years since the infamous Sheikh Mansour takeover, and whilst millions of pounds have been invested into the academy setups in terms of facilities and personnel, the club have still perhaps somewhat underperformed in terms of players produced.

Of course, Phil Foden has been a shining light for the Citizens and continues to capture the imagination of fans around the world, but perhaps this season has been one of the best for youth development at Manchester City. A total of nine Manchester City academy players have gained first-team minutes this season, with standouts such as Liam Delap, James McAtee and Kayky all catching the eye of many keen takers around the English game.

One would feel that young talents coming out of Manchester City’s academy will be a theme that continues throughout the coming years as the academy teams have been thriving at all levels.

The U23s have won the Premier League 2 for the previous two seasons, whilst the U18 have topped the U18 Premier League North Division for the past three seasons and went on to beat Fulham in the National final last year after the 2019/2020 final did not take place due to the pandemic.

As such, it seems as though domination does not only ring true for Manchester City’s senior side but is a culture that is now embroidered into the club from top to bottom.

Similarly to Southampton, City’s U18 side enjoyed an unbeaten end to the season, as Ben Wilkinson’s side went seven games without a loss to end their campaign, winning six of the said encounters.

Head-to-head –

Due to the North/South divide of the U18 Premier League, these two sides have not met at U18 level competitively since 2013. The game included players such as Angelino, Tosin Adarabioyo, Olivier Ntcham, Kean Bryan, Bersant Celina and Jake Hesketh. On that occasion, Manchester City ran out 3-0 winners at Staplewood. Who knows which players will emerge from the current crop of young talents from either side and go on to find success wherever they may end up.

In terms of performances in their respective divisions, the records of these two sides are very similar, with the Saints gaining 20 wins to City’s 19. However, the standard differentiation must be taken into consideration, as a Southern team has only won the National Final once since its inception back in 2017/2018, and that itself came in its maiden season.

Furthermore, whilst the Saints may have out-pointed City, the Mancunians had a much firmer grip on their division with a ten-point buffer to 2nd place in comparison with Southampton’s four.

Key Players –

Southampton have had the luxury of promoting many of their U18 players into the B Team and allowing them to mix with both setups. Three prime examples of that this season have been Dominic Ballard, Luke Pearce and Kamari Doyle.

All three have made 25+ appearances for both U18 and B teams combined, and have built up impressive records in doing so. Luke Pearce has particularly caught the eye, playing 34 times for both teams combined and scoring a grand total of 18 goals and 9 assists in doing so (11 goals, 6 assists in 21 apps for U18 and 7 goals, 3 assists in 13 apps for B team).

What players like Pearce, Ballard and Doyle have brought to the Southampton youth setup is an element of dynamism that has left academy defences terrified. These young stars will drive forward with no fear and have the finishing touch to punish teams.

As well as this, 16-year-old Tyler Dibling went viral after his hat trick for the B Team (U23 level) went viral for the almost identically brilliant nature of all three goals. Expect to see him feature as well as eligible B team regulars such as Lewis Payne and Ryan Finnigan.

The wealth of Manchester City of course seeps down throughout the levels, meaning they can scout young talent from across the world and bring them into their setups. This much is evident with the international flavour of the Man City strike force. 18-year-old Carlos Borges has scored 11 goals and 6 assists in just seven U18 appearances this season, and he could well line up next to the Nigerian-born Scotsman Adedire Mebude. Born in 2004, the 17-year-old has taken the U18 Premier League by storm, bagging a remarkable 11 goals and 17 assists in 20 appearances.

Overview –

The two teams have scored 167 goals across 26 games this season, so one would be forgiven for expecting goals in this game. However, with 60 goals conceded in the same period of time, the defences of both sides will be hoping that they can play their part in attaining national glory.

Neither side will be all that used to playing in a stadium such as St.Mary’s, much more so with a sizeable crowd expected.

Manchester City will of course be the favourites and will have history on their side in winning this very competition last year. However, Southampton will look to capitalise on the element of home advantage and will know that they have the talent within their ranks that have performed at U23 level before, so will therefore hope that this can translate to U18 triumph.

Playing on such a big stage will of course be a huge advertisement for scouts planning to scoop up players on permanent and loan deals alike, and with the cut-throat nature of academies, many of these players will be playing for contract extensions and future professional deals. The prize on the night will be the U18 Premier League trophy and knowing that they are the best U18 team in the country, but this game represents so much more than that for each and every single one of those players.

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