In our latest Academy column, U18s boss Neil Critchley tells us about last weekend's trip to Germany and why there is still plenty to play for as his side try to become national champions at the end of the season.
Last week we took the U19 squad to Germany, where we competed for the Champions Cup against some of the best teams in Europe. We reached the semi-finals of the tournament held in Dusseldorf and finished in fourth place overall and it was a great experience for the players. We had a good time and we were well received by the tournament organisers because it’s a few years since we were last there.
It was a very well-organised tournament and we lost to the eventual winners Red Bull Salzburg 1-0 in the semi-final. We were a little bit unfortunate to lose that game but overall it was a really good experience. We got the chance to play against different teams from all around the world and it was good for our boys to challenge themselves against that calibre of teams. We played very well overall and beat FC Cruzeiro and Benfica in our group games. The games only lasted 50 minutes so it was always going to be tight and be decided by the big moments, and that is what happened in the semi-final. We had most of the ball and most of the chances but they took their chance and that was the difference. They were clinical and that is why we went out.
It’s important to go and play in these tournaments as it takes the players out of their comfort zone, we learn a lot more about them as coaches and they also get to experience different ways of playing the game. The last tournament we went to was an indoor football festival and this time it was 50-minute matches. Playing in these types of games also tests the players to the maximum. We talk to them about the importance of game management, stretching the boundaries of what the boys are capable of physically and mentally because you are playing so many games in a short space of time, so they are tested physically. We took a really young group of lads to Germany and we had four U16 players in an U19 tournament, which is fantastic.
We are back to our league programme on Saturday when we face a trip to Arsenal in our end-of-season mini-league. We have three league games left, just two points off top spot with a lot to play for. There are three fantastic games to look forward to, playing against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, so it gives us a fighting chance. We were disappointed with the result in our last league game when we lost 2-1 at Reading, but hopefully a good lesson has been learned from that game because we didn’t turn up in the first half and only started playing in the second 45 minutes.
Arsenal represents a tough challenge but, as ever, our only focus is on ourselves and what we do, and what a game this is to look forward to. I have told the boys that our approach to the game and our mentality right from the first whistle has to be better than the last game. We know we need to start well against Arsenal. These are the types of games we want to be involved in because they push the boys to the limit. Their focus, concentration and effort has to be consistent. They can’t just do it for 20 minutes or 45 minutes, it has to be done for the full game.
We will have Adam Lewis available again after suspension and we welcome him back into the squad. Adam has enjoyed a season of progress, including his recent call-up to train with the first team in Tenerife, which was fantastic for him. There is healthy competition for places in the U18s squad and we welcome that.