Southampton U23s thumping win over their Liverpool counterparts wasn’t shown live, but it was still noteworthy- and not just because a Saints team managed to go three goals ahead at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park ground without it turning into a cataclysm.
For starters, several things could be derived from the team selection. A very youthful Saints’ XI (Liverpool including established Premier League striker and lifelong Saints fan Danny Ings in theirs) was missing Jack Stephens, Jordan Turnbull and Harrison Reed. The former two of that trio are centre backs, and with Florin Gardos unavailable and Manchester United’s much speculated about courtship of Jose Fonte seemingly about to turn nasty, it may be that first team manager Claude Puel wants the development squad’s most senior central defenders ready if he needs them at Old Trafford this Friday.
Another explanation is that Stephens, Turnbull and Reed have been lined up for loan moves. In Turnbull’s case, this would be unsurprising. As well as having spent the last two seasons on loan and never having threatened to make the Saints first team, he was released from the pre-season tour of the Netherlands before it ended. He doesn’t seem likely to be parachuted in for a game away at Manchester United. Reed though was much more heavily involved in the friendlies, and with Saints wanting two players in every position, is one of six central midfielders competing for the three deeper roles in Saints’ diamond/4-3-3 hybrid. It would be a surprise to see him or Stephens- who by Friday could be one injury away from his second appearance at Old Trafford in less than a year (having played for Middlesbrough in their League Cup victory there last October).
The least sinister explanation would be that these players have simply been promoted and are now fully paid up members of the first team squad, and with the Europa League meaning so many extra fixtures this season, there may be something in that.
Whatever the case, this was a good result for the U23s, who are currently being led by Saints’ Tunisian cult hero Radhi Jaïdi, himself a former centre back. Saints’ Technical Director Martin Hunter, who usually took the development squad in the old U21s league, has been at a coaching conference in Baltimore and has left Jaïdi in charge in the past. Whether he will resume control of the oldest of Saints’ age group teams upon his return remains to be seen, and there has been no announcement from the club. Understandably, Jaidi spoke effusively about Sunday’s performance, singling out young, raw forward Olufela Olomola for having "set the tempo from the start".
This is encouraging for the 18 year old Olomola, a classic case of a player too powerful and physically mature to be challenged by playing against boys his own age but who struggled to make an impression when moved up to the U21s in the second half of last season. Yesterday he followed up an eye-catching cameo in last week’s friendly against QPR U23s by scoring twice. One- a scrappy effort following a goalmouth scramble- was what Gary Lineker would call a "proper goal", but the other was an impressive curled shot with his right foot. Having played and trained with the first team during the close season, he has hit the ground running.
Meanwhile, Jake Hesketh- much beloved of this correspondent- contributed a typically stylish strike that was almost identical to one he scored against Tottenham U21s in February, and Josh Sims also scored. Sims- a nimble, almost elfin winger- appeared to plateau slightly last season, losing his place in the U21s team, so this is probably a vital campaign for him.
Sadly the lack of live coverage precludes any judgement on how the highly regarded Alfie jones fared against Ings, although Ings certainly slipped away from Jones and central defensive partner Ollie Cook for long enough to get on the scoresheet. So while this was a most gratifying start to life in the PL2 for Saints, as is so often the case in football, it provided as many questions as answers.