Let’s face it; it hasn’t been a fantastic start to the season for the Saints. Whilst twelve points from nine games may not seem like a particularly bad start, given the fixture list you would expect that tally to be slightly higher, whilst the football itself has been uninspired and barely scraping above average. Southampton have also failed to score in four of their nine matches, and would’ve drawn a blank last Saturday as well had it not been for a piece of individual genius from Sofiane Boufal. With these early exchanges in the season being fairly average, is there any potential to re-ignite a spark of excitement around St Mary’s?
Last week, in a virtually empty stadium, I had the opportunity to witness Southampton’s under 23’s take on Newcastle and a chance to look for any potential solutions to this early season mediocrity. It was also a chance for the south coast club to show off the fruits of its academy. Let’s not forget, Southampton have produced a long line of stars throughout their history, with Alan Shearer and Gareth Bale being prime examples of the production line of arguably the finest youth set up in the country that also boasts the likes of Theo Walcott, Matt Le Tissier and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain.
Eight of Southampton’s first XI consisted of first-team substitutes, many of them having origins in the famed youth system. With this strength in experience, the game was ultimately a mismatch with the Saints smashing a youthful Newcastle side 6-2. In spite of this, nothing can be taken away from the Southampton under 23’s, who faced their task with full professionalism as well as a reminder of how effective the club is at nurturing youth players on the way to an exciting future. But more importantly, can any of them transition into the first team now and add something new?
Whilst you will never get a full impression of an individual’s talent when playing against a much weaker and less experienced team, there were a few causes for optimism that night. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg had a slow debut season in England, but in this Saint’s youth side he was arguably the best player on the pitch. Creating chances, showing flashes of quality, and above all else, playing with a bit of flair. Central midfield is a reasonably strong position for the Saints, with Romeu, Davis and Lemina all comfortable with shielding the defence and overseeing the play from the middle of the park. Hojbjerg may therefore be better off in a slightly more advanced position, and whilst he is a central midfielder by trade, there can surely be little harm in testing him out a bit further up the pitch. It could be a benefit to both his development and the first team’s fortunes.
On top of that, Jack Stephens looked rock solid at the back, as he generally has done when called upon in the Premier League this season, and is easing the concern about a defensive hole being left when want-away Van Dijk leaves the club. Sam McQueen, a left back by trade playing in the unusual position of left attacking midfield, bagged himself a brace and displayed some clever touches and adept decision making. With Dusan Tadic and particularly Nathan Redmond facing some criticism for their poor attacking contribution this season, on the evidence of this display we could well see the young McQueen getting more chances to impress further up the pitch, possibly even with the first team.
Finally, we come to a name that is far less known than all those mentioned so far; Yan Valery. The young right back assisted McQueen’s first goal with a fine cross, and although his link up play and final ball was not always the best, he was solid defensively and was making considerable efforts to get forward whenever possible. Of course, the first team right back Cedric Soares is one of the finest players the Saints possess, but there is no doubting Valery’s potential. At just 18, he could grow to be the next Nathaniel Clyne for Southampton.
Ultimately, as I said before, it is hard to accurately judge a player’s ability in a game such as this. However, with Stephens and Valery giving good accounts of themselves for the future and Hojbjerg and McQueen looking ready to take a step up now, there are certainly encouraging signs in the youth team. It is hard to say how much influence the latter pair could have on Southampton’s fortunes if they were drafted in now, but if the Saints want to recapture a bit of excitement and a spark of youth in their season, then there is certainly no harm in giving them first team opportunities in the near future.