One of the most intriguing aspects to this Saints pre-season is how the various academy products on the fringes of the first team squad perform, having been given a fresh start under a new coach. A player of particular interest to fans who regularly watch the U21s will be Jake Hesketh.
Hesketh is heading into the last year of his contract with Southampton and with the club’s most trusted journalists indicating that Saints are looking to buy an attacking midfielder, his future appears uncertain. It’s not a unique situation for a young English player, but Hesketh himself is unique. Whatever his shortcomings may be (most observations seem to focus on his physique), Hesketh possesses one of football’s valuable technical commodities- the ability to play the killer pass. Playing a perfectly weighted through-ball seems to be as easy to Hesketh as pressing the triangle button while playing a video game. It’s difficult to get hold of stats for the U21 Premier League, and perhaps equally difficult to assess how much to read into performances at that level, but by almost anyone’s standards, Hesketh has been a standout player in Saints development squad over the last two seasons.
Sadly his one Premier League start to date, in a 1-0 defeat at Burnley, ended in anguish, and it seems to have had lasting ramifications. Having looked bright in the early stages of the game, Hesketh was on the business end of a meaty Michael Keane tackle that didn’t yield a free kick but did lead to Hesketh being substituted- in tears- and injured for several weeks. Saints' manager at the time, Ronald Koeman, was furious after the game- "It’s a foul and a yellow card", he said- and interestingly that game seems in retrospect like it might have been a turning point for Saints under Koeman. Until that point Koeman seemed very much on board with the concept of "The Pathway", with Harrison Reed getting his first Premier League start in a game against Everton and several other youngsters given debuts during the first half of the season.
Whether Hesketh’s injury spooked Koeman we’ll probably never know, but he did seem increasingly preoccupied with physical strength as time went on; last season he persisted with Cuco Martina and even an out of position Maya Yoshida ahead of Cedric Soares, and Victor Wanyama went from being a player who had to compete with Jack Cork for a place in the starting line-up to seemingly the first name on the team sheet, regardless of how many times he missed games through either suspension or truculence.
Hesketh, meanwhile, seemed to vanish- at least from Koeman’s line of vision. If physical power is a priority for a coach, his eye is unlikely to alight on Hesketh- he is short and slight. Having recovered from injury, the next time he played in front of more than a handful of people at St. Mary's was in the second leg of the U21 Cup final. That night, it may have become apparent that he was awarded Saints’ "Academy Scholar of the Year" award in 2014- and fast-tracked into the first team squad- with good reason. There was much to admire in his performance. But by then, Saints had brought in Filip Djuricic on loan- a similarly clever, diminutive attacking midfielder. He too seemed unable to cope with the demands of the Premier League, spending several periods out injured- and despite some extremely promising performances, his loan spell was inconclusive and the move wasn’t made permanent.
From there, Saints quest for a creator saw them turn to Juanmi. The physical side of English football can be overstated at times- facing more muscular Premier league players has seldom seemed to impair Andres Iniesta against Premier League opponents, while the equally willowy Luka Modric did so well in England’s top flight that he ended up at Real Madrid. Juanmi though- while capped by his country and highly rated- had an even harder time with the brawny environment he found himself in. He had Hesketh’s build but not his attitude. When Hesketh is inevitably ushered off the ball by a more robust opponent, he seems to almost bounce off the ground and back to his feet before shuttling back to try and regain possession. Juanmi preferred to lie on the ground and complain, and this annoyed Koeman so much that he took to refusing to award him free kicks even in training. Hesketh, if anything, can be too aggressive (he was booked in that ill-fated game at Burnley for a reckless challenge on Tom Heaton).
Much has been written, whispered and anonymously posted on social media in reference to Koeman’s attitude to Southampton’s academy products, but regardless of whether Koeman was an admirer of the young playmaker, someone at the club was, or he’d never have been picked, even in an injury crisis. Koeman surely didn’t have to pick Hesketh for that Burnley game- other permutations of selection were on offer. A year on, Hesketh was among the players dismissed by Koeman in his infamous "not a project manager" outburst and- perhaps not coincidentally or entirely spuriously- was linked with a move away (to Manchester United, no less) around that time.
So besides his dimensions, what’s not to like? Being rejected by a coach who, in retrospect, had no vested interest in Saints’ future shouldn’t be an indictment of Hesketh, and it’s probable that a major part of new manager Claude Puel’s brief is to extract full value from the academy. How- or if- Hesketh fits into that remains to be seen, and the time remaining on his contract makes the scenario even more oblique. If other clubs really are interested, it’s perfectly plausible that Hesketh might be reluctant to re-sign, particularly without guaranteed playing time, whereas from the club’s perspective, they may be hesitant in offering a new deal to a player who is yet to prove himself at the highest level.
Purely on the basis of technical ability it's hard to see why any manager wouldn't admire Hesketh. While not blessed with the searing pace to beat multiple defenders, Hesketh offers verticality through his willingness to drive at defences before offloading the ball just before a challenge can be made. He looks comfortable enough playing on the half turn- an oft-neglected part of an attacking midfielder's skill set- although this is more difficult against stronger, more experienced defenders. He scores goals too. He must, necessarily, have shortcomings though. In an U21 team severely weakened by injuries and loans out, Hesketh wasn't always able to prompt and probe as he might have hoped to. While his defensive contribution was fine, his positioning in transitions isn't on the level of someone like Steven Davis (why would it be? Davis is over ten years Hesketh's senior), and he could become peripheral when his team weren't dominating possession. There's also the question of where he might fit in. Though Hesketh has played in other positions, he seems, in essence, to be a "number ten", a role that has gone in and out of fashion even since the turn of the century due to the cyclical nature of tactics. Will Puel's Saints regularly deploy one? The evidence suggests he will, but we don't yet know for sure.
Those fans who haven’t seen much of Hesketh won't mourn if he departs- after all, it’s a fact of football life that the majority of academy products don’t end up establishing themselves in the first team. Yet from a purely aesthetic basis, it would be a shame. Ardent watchers of Martin Hunter’s side might- if the wrong side of 30- be put in mind of a couple of players who featured all too briefly for Saints in the 1990s. Hesketh’s effervescence and pinball wizard give-and-go wall passes are reminiscent of Ronnie Ekelund, a Danish midfielder taken on loan from Barcelona by Alan Ball who remains one of Matt Le Tissier’s favourite team mates, while the otherworldly weighting of his through-passes invokes Israeli international Eyal Berkovic, one of the stars of the legendary 6-3 demolition of United in 1996.
If Hesketh is ultimately deemed to be unworthy of first team football at Saints, it will be a judgement passed by people far better qualified than almost any casual observer, but whatever club or level Hesketh ends up playing his football at, he’ll make it look attractive. As for Saints, if signing quality attacking midfielders was easy then everyone would do it. Whoever they decide to buy will be a pleasure to watch if they’re better than Hesketh.