Friday, 7 August 2015

CFA Season Preview - The u18s.

Last year was unequivocally a strong year for the u18s. Buoyed on by the opening of the impeccable City Football Academy, Wilcox's team stole headlines. They were at times glorious, only just pipped to FA Youth Cup success by a powerful, accomplished and ruthless Chelsea side. It could have been a different result, too, had a couple of first choice players been available. The poise, power and skill of Denzeil Boadu and Thierry Ambrose were sorely missed through the middle - both were firing on all cylinders before being unfortunately struck down by season-ending injuries. Perhaps consequently, it didn't quite result in the happy ending it possibly deserved, and Chelsea were deserved winners, but the positives were there for all to see. The football was marvellous - technically astute, incisive, measured and decorated frequently by a near perfect blend of flair and hard work. It was hugely promising, often fascinating, and arguably the first true indicator of the success that will surely be borne from the meticulous attention to detail the club has paid in developing the academy.

There was downsides, naturally - the league form took a slight hit. A packed fixture schedule, and the club's insistence on testing players up an age level, meant the teams involved in league games were usually peppered with a mixture of very young first year scholars, sixteen year olds basically, and players who were deemed not quite ready for the step up to the u19s or the EDS. Effectively, though never officially, it created two separate squads. The u18s who played the league games, and the u18s who were involved with the FA Youth Cup matches. There was the odd blurring of lines, of course, and some flitted between the two teams earlier on in the season - notably the centre-back pairing of Tosin Adarabioyo and Cameron Humphreys, Aaron Nemane and Bersant Celina too, but the likes of Maffeo, Angelino, Ambrose, Bryan and Barker, all eligible, were mostly preoccupied with the EDS, the u19s and the FA Youth Cup run. Others simply moved up as their performances improved. Garcia, Humphreys and Adarabioyo being prime examples, all ending the season with Vieira's u21s. Unsurprisingly, consistency suffered. Results were patchy as very young players, often still schoolboys at fifteen, filled the vacated gaps, leading to some indifferent results - yet all this is part of the process, and all it would have been expected. Regardless, The season was rightly considered a success. Players improved, many stepped up and the transition to the CFA was a resounding success.

The club will expect similar this year, and rightly so. The new campaign starts in earnest on Saturday morning against Liverpool, and the expectation surrounding the u18s is as high as ever. Admittedly the make up of the team is still a little uncertain - the dust hasn't yet fully settled following the typically disjointed preseason exploits. Many of last year's u18s traveled with the EDS during the summer, leaving a youthful, fresh looking touring squad - though just as many of Vieira's team traveled with the first team too, so perhaps those promotions were necessary short-term measures. Where they'll all end up once everything kicks off remains to be seen. My gut instinct, as is the City way with these things, is that we'll see a similar scenario to last season. The two u18s friendlies I've caught in the past week would seem to tally with this. The line ups were primarily first and second year scholars. Garcia, Haug, Nemane, Humphreys, Celina, Adarabioyo, Tattum, Oliver, and possibly Paolo Fernandes too, have all outgrown the u18s league, and none of them were involved with Wilcox's preseason preparations. Indeed, all except Fernandes were announced as EDS members during the City Live show this week. Though these things are hardly sacrosanct, they're as good an indicator as we're likely to get. However, like last year, I'd still expect the vast majority of them to drop into the FA Youth Cup squad from time to time. The club seem to approach these competitions with a degree of flexibility, clearly seeing the benefit of mixing the younger, first year graduates with those a little further along the path. There's no reason this will change now.

Certain other players, in particular the ones who spent last seasons regulars in Barclays u18 Premier League, will consider themselves viable EDS candidates. Presuming he remains at the club, Emmanuel Vasi could prove to be a reliable and sturdy option at left-back, capable of challenging Ash Smith-Brown for the vacant Angelino role. The Dutch youth international, Javairo Dilruson, would be a real contender if Brandon Barker vacates his usual left-wing station in the search of first team experience and Isaac Buckley, a pacy and skilful striker, will have eyes on a movement up through the ranks. Marcus Wood will too - a tough-tackling box-to-box midfielder who impressed with his powerful, driving performances last year. He's more than capable of vying with Kean Bryan for a spot in the heart of Patrick Vieira's team, despite his tender years. Even then, the latter two, or quite possibly all four, could all be conceivably involved with the u18s come Saturday morning. The club are acutely aware of affording game time to all involved, so there will eventually be a resolution for those seemingly stuck somewhere in-between the two age groups, or the competition-specific squads. Presuming they start the season with the u18s, they'll be joining a whole host of impressive footballers.

Sadou Diallo
None more so than England u17 international, Sadou Diallo. Highly rated at City, he was granted his first taste of u18s football last year - at the grand old age of 15. He's tall, strong and impossibly composed. An assured leader in midfield, with shades of Yaya to his game. Encouragingly though, not just for his physicality - its his technique and ability to dictate from deep that draw the obvious comparisons. He's a wonderful prospect, and he'll most likely line up anchor the midfield alongside fellow first year scholar, Jacob Davenport. Another that impressed greatly during pre-season. As we'd expect of any academy graduate these days, he proved himself more than capable on the ball, but it was his reading of the game that really stood out during preseason. Every team needs a 'water carrier', so to speak - a term Makelele was once labeled with, but it takes intelligence to be able to play the defensive midfield role effectively. Its a responsibility much more nuanced than many would have you believe. There's a real skill to knowing where you need to be, and what to do when you're actually there. Early indications suggest Davenport is good at this. He may be small, but he's tenacious and recycles possession well. An ideal candidate in the heart of the attacking 4-3-3 the club favours at academy level.

Of the other midfield options, expect Will Patching to most likely complete the usual midfield triumvirate. He's a delightful footballer. Technically exquisite, fleet-footed and with an eye for a pass. He'll be the most advanced of the central midfielders and predominantly assigned with supporting the forward three. Deri Corfe will provide opposition for that role, a small but skilful attacking midfielder, and Rodney Kongolo will challenge both Davenport and Diallo for the other midfield positions. It didn't quite happen for Kongolo last year after joining with a big reputation from Feyenoord, but this year offers a chance for a redemption for the seventeen year old, and with a season behind him it may happen. Defensively, Ash Kigbu stands out. Yet another fantastic young English centre-back, equally capable of matching the gigantic strides made by Cameron Humphreys and Tosin Adarabioyo last term. Fast, aggressive and always on the front foot, there's shades of Mangala - the positive aspects of his game at least. He's vocal too - combine that with his obvious athletic prowess and it's clear he'll be a hugely influential presence on match days. Captain material. Alongside him Josh Murray will prove a calm, composed companion, with Joe Coveney an equally competent alternative, capable of playing anywhere across the backline. Lewis Blackshaw is yet another first year graduate, and he's a real live-wire. He shuttles up and down the left wing to great effect, admirably persistent. Demeaco Duhaney, afforded his debut for the u18s  last year, should take the right-back spot. Fast, attacking and comfortable with either foot, he's very much a modern footballer. He was impressive in last weekend's friendly against QPR, coming on at left-back, not his preferred side, yet he excelled, doing a more than passable Angelino impression. Callum Bullock will have ideas of his own - dogged and determined, he's a likeable little player, capable of crossing a ball too, and he'll challenge Duhaney for a spot on the right hand side of defence.

Will Patching
Behind them, presuming Haug completes his transition to a full-time member of the EDS, expect Daniel Grimshaw and Charlie Albinson to take turns between the sticks. Both are good, promising young keepers. Grimshaw, in particular, is remarkably composed with the ball at his feet, and Albinson a solid, brave shot-stopper. The attacking options don't let up. Brahim Diaz is a potential star - the one most likely to 'do a Garcia'. Hugely coveted, he's finally free of the legal red-tape that prevented him from playing until his sixteenth birthday. The little Spaniard is some player. Diminutive he may be, but he's bullish, direct and blessed with magnificent ability, capable of beating numerous players within seconds. There's shades of Kinkladze to his game - he'll surely shine this year from his left wing position where he's given licence to drift in field and run incessantly at the opposing defenders. Alongside him, and through the middle, will most likely be Lukas Nmecha or Zack Faour. Both come with strong reputations. Nmecha, already a regular England youth international, is frighteningly clinical. Just a purely instinctive finisher. Quick, strong, with good footwork and an uncanny knack of being in the right place. He's scored frequently at all levels - his summer tally of 11 goals in 4 friendlies being clear evidence.

Faour was tipped for huge things, arriving as the 'next Ibrahimovic'. Clearly hyperbole, as ever with the press, but it wasn't just based around his Swedish heritage and Malmo connections. He as talent, clearly. Yet he struggled to find consistency in England last year, only shining sporadically. A scorer of great goals, as opposed to a great goalscorer, if you like. He's looked stronger in pre-season though, encouragingly, working the line well. Expect him to interchange with Nmecha up top. Over to their right, Buckley is a handful. Nominally a striker, he'll most likely start on the wing, yet he's good at it. He cuts inside well, the Pedro-at-Barcelona-run if you like, breaking defensive lines and linking up intelligently with Patching, Diaz and Nmecha. He'll score plenty. Joe Hardy, another with a very strong reputation at youth level, will challenge Buckley for his position, though expect Fernandes, the delightfully mercurial Spanish winger, to be a regular if he doesn't complete his transition to the EDS.

As ever, the players a year below will be given opportunities as the season progresses. The u15s and u16s are equally blessed with top-class talent. Tyrese Campbell is a ridiculously powerful, beastly forward. Devastatingly strong and lightning quick, he scored 49, yes forty-nine, goals at youth level last year. Luke Bolton is another handful, a strong runner, tireless and impressively direct out wide. Skilful too, and a goal threat. Myles Beerman combines pace, technical ability and flair wonderfully on the left-wing and Phil Foden is another headline stealing wonder-kid. Admittedly still tiny, he's a playmaker with exceptional potential, possessing a Silva-like touch. Rafael Camacho, a Portugese winger brought in from Sporting, is capable of the spectacular. Never more evident than his simply incredible free-kick at an invitational tournament back in May. Jadon Sancho, a real street footballer, blessed with a whole array of tricks is a match-winner, and Matt Smith is a complete box-to-box midfielder. There's more too - all will be pushing for quick promotions, and some will find it if they carry on in a similar vein to last season.

It's a campaign that promises much. For the first time since the Academy was revamped, there's a real depth to the talent pool available. The fruits of the intense labour put in by all involved are really starting to show. It's frightening to be honest, and it's only going to get better. This year will be yet another fascinating insight into how the future of this club will be shaped. There will be hiccups along the way, as ever, but with the CFA and all that surrounds it, we're witnessing something not seen in English football for a long time, if ever. The club's commitment to producing well-rounded individuals, evident in the club's insistence on overseeing private education for all academy players until they become scholars, and emphasising technical ability over physicality will soon start to effect the club where it matters - in the first team. This year we'll see the first players promoted since the take-over in Denayer and Lopes, and this trend will not slow down. The u18s start their season tomorrow morning at the CFA against Liverpool  at 11am. As ever, there will be a report on here after the game.

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