Reserve football has undergone quite a few changes in recent years, never quite settling on a format which proves sustainable. The Premier League 2 is the current iteration launched for the 2016/17 season, replacing the previous under 21 Premier league and aims to provide to provide “a greater focus on technicality, physicality and intensity to bring players as close to first-team experience as possible.” .
The league is split into two tiers of 12 teams each with promotion and relegation and the 24 competing clubs (15 from the Premier League and 9 from the Championship) are those who have applied for ‘Catregory One’ status in the Elite player Performance Plan. This two-tier format is fairly similar to the previous two seasons of the U-21 Premier League, with the biggest change being the raising of the age limit has to under-23 – though the age limit does not apply to goalkeepers and up to three ‘over-age’ players can be used in the match.
Among the other rules are that each club plays at least three matches at their main stadium. This is another rule which – or at least similar to one – which, I believe, dates from the introduction of the Premier League U21 league back in 2012 and was brought in to counteract the trend for clubs to play all reserve/development games behind closed doors, but whilst a few games do get a public airing it’s a far cry from when reserve games attracted a dedicated following week-in week-out.
It is though still a great chance for fans, or anyone with an interest, to have a little glimpse of the future. As the players went through their warm up routines, there was no shortage of skill on show. Where I was sat in the ground I had a good view of the Liverpool players and one player who catches my eye in the warm up was Liverpool’s Yan Dhanda who put on a virtuoso display of keepy-uppy, drilled 30 yard passes and clinical finishing. It seems I’m not the only one to have clocked Dhanda as at the start of the season he made the Telegraph’s list of ’10 young players for Liverpool fans to get excited about this season.’
Both sides played in a similar style with the patient build-up play, short passes and fluid movement to both attack and defend in numbers. A clear emphasis put on retaining possession and even the goalkeepers played short passes unless directly under pressure. It was Saints however, who dominated from the start with Josh Sims signalling intent with a wickedly curling in the opening moments which went just wide of the post. Saints goal came on 29 minutes when a header from a cross was saved by the Liverpool ‘keeper, only to fall invitingly for Alfie Jones to tuck away beyond a tangled mass of bodies. Also standing out for Saints in the first half was team captain Harrison Reed who did much to boss the middle of the park.
Air’s Kelly Watch the Stars played over the PA system as the teams came out for the second half. The amount of clouds in the darkening Southampton sky though meant that no stars were visible should Kelly, or anyone else wish to take a look. On the pitch however, Liverpool did provide a bright display in their luminous yellow kit which seemed to glow under the floodlights. In general it was a much more evenly matched half, but again it was the hosts who found the net after Saints number 7 Olufela Olomola scored with a shot from the edge of the area. Seconds later the Saints almost added another, hitting the woodwork with a header, before seeing the follow-up shot blocked on the line by a defender.
It would later turn out to be a key moment in the game as Liverpool pull a goal back on 76 minutes when a beautifully incisive short pass from Kevin Stewart completely wrong-foots the Saints defence and leaves Liverpool captain Harry Wilson through on goal.
The beauty in a finely balanced game of football as it reaches its conclusion is the potential it contains for a last minute plot twist. Saints fought to preserve their lead, but as the stadium clock registers 90 minutes Liverpool scorer Harry Wilson was racing for the ball in the Saints area. Up against him was Saints Sam McQueen. Wilson gets a touch on the ball first, to prod it past the defender. McQueen though has left just enough trailing leg out for the Liverpool captain to trip on and take the penalty.
Wilson himself took the spot-kick. Saints ‘keeper Mouez Hassen got down well to save, but Wilson followed up well and the ball fell kindly for him to tuck away the equaliser. Final score 2-2.