Neil Critchley has offered a fascinating insight into the continuing hard work at Academy level that goes on to make sure players are in the best possible shape when a first-team opportunity comes calling.

Despite a tough start to the season with losses to the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, Critchley has been encouraged by recent performances.

After three successive draws in Premier League 2, the U23s are hoping to get back to winning ways on Sunday when they host Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Kirkby Academy (kick-off 2pm BST).

While Critchley remains adamant that results are not the be all and end all at U23 level, the coach argues that player development and improvement will always remain high on the Academy coaching agenda.

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Read on for Critchley’s thoughts on the campaign so far and aims for the rest of 2019-20…

On the start to the season so far…

I think we had a tough start in terms of results. The performances were indifferent but I think we have shown progress as a team of late and the performances have improved. I think we are showing better cohesion and relationships have been built on the pitch which has added to the way the team have played. I don’t think the results have reflected the performances recently. The last few games we have drawn [in Premier League 2] we could easily have won those games but I think there has been some progress from the players within the team and I’m sure that will continue between now and the end of the season.

On the hard work the group need to continue going forward…

My job is different from a first-team manager’s job, so I have to be careful that I’m not just here to improve the team. Obviously we’ve conceded some goals in those games and the easy thing for me would be to improve the team defensively which might mean we concede less goals and that might mean we pick up better results. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m improving the players within the team, so I have to be very careful that we don’t change what our philosophy is, what we believe in and I think it could actually be a good thing for these players because we’ve got quite a young group this season. This tough period we’ve had in terms of results has been tough for the boys but I think that will actually be something that will stand them in good stead long term, because the next step they are trying to make into first-team football - hopefully at our club but if not into the Football League - is the toughest step to take. The period that we are in at the moment may be a good thing for these boys in the future.

On how new faces like Harvey Elliott and Sepp van den Berg have settled into the U23s squad…

They have settled in really well. Again, you go back to the group that we had in pre-season and that can be a bit of an up and down period for first team and us. You don’t really get your settled team until the first day of the season really. Our pre-season team was completely different to the one that started the Premier League 2 season. The team has been developing and that has allowed the likes of Sepp and Harvey to find their feet and improve their performances. I’ve been really pleased with how they have settled into the group. I’ve found working with them really enjoyable and some of the other boys as well. I think we’ve got not just a good group of players but good people as well.

On the constantly changing team with players moving up to the first team and players from the U18 group stepping up…

Obviously the team selection does change and the personnel changes and that has been no different now for a number of years. We are very clear of what we stand for and how we want to develop our players. Sometimes that might mean the result of the team might suffer a little bit, but as long as we are working towards the principles of what the first team would want, it’s got to look something similar to them, that’s the most important thing for us. The environment that I would like to think we create here on a daily basis, which is drilled into our players constantly from a young age, I think that helps to breed the right type of person.

On Sunday's home game with Wolves in Premier League 2…

We just want to build on the performances that we’ve had. If I was a first-team manager and I knew we were conceding goals then I could make the team tighter and harder to beat. But that might not be the right thing for the players we have in the team. If our defenders want to play for our first team then they need to get used to playing and defending in big spaces, defending one-v-one and two-v-two on the halfway line. That means sometimes we are a little bit open but we are not going to change from that, so sometimes the best form of defence is to attack and keep the ball. If we can keep the ball better and we are better at scoring goals at the other end then I’m sure that will help us at keeping the ball out at the other end of the pitch. Having said that, we’ve still got to be better at keeping the ball out, blocking shots, defending crosses and defending set-pieces. We need to improve upon that but it’s not something that we devote all of our time to. We have to make sure that our time is spent around the players within the team and giving those the best opportunity of having a career in football because in a few years from now we won’t remember the results of the U23 team. We’ll just remember the ones that go and play hopefully in our first team or go and have a career in football.

On a debut goal for U18s player Tom Hill at U23 level who netted during the 3-2 win over Wigan Athletic in the Premier League Cup...

Tom made his first start for us at U21 level against Fleetwood Town in the Leasing.com Trophy and we had a very young team out that night. I thought he was one of a number of the players who did really well. What Tom has got is the ability to get into the box and score goals, which he showed against Wigan. He times his runs very well and he has a knack of getting into goalscoring positions and scoring. He has always shown that as a boy growing up in the Academy. He shows no fear, he has a good competitive edge about him and I’ve been really impressed on how he has performed this season and obviously that’s credit to the work that has gone into him in the last few months and the years prior to. That’s credit to all of the staff, Barry [Lewtas] in particular, but I don’t want to just single him out. There were a few of them who did really well against Fleetwood and that’s what we are about as a club, giving young players a chance to progress. We don’t just have an U18 and an U23 team, we have players who move between both age groups and into the first team as well, and that pathway always has to be clear for our better players.

How the U21 group have performed in the Leasing.com Trophy so far with one group game left to play at Accrington Stanley on October 29…

I think it has been a good experience for us. I would have liked the results to have been a little bit better. You go back to our first game against Oldham Athletic which was a disappointing result but I thought the performance on the night was OK at times. When we got back into the game and then to lose it in the manner that we did, I knew that could be a significant result in terms of the standings in the table. For the Fleetwood game I couldn’t have been more proud of the team on the evening with the way we played. I think we could have possibly won that game as well with the balance of the chances on the evening. That probably sums our season up so far a little bit and we haven’t got the results that some of our performances have merited. We’ve still got an outside chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, I think we’ll need a miracle, but we’ve still got something to play for in our last game.

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On the experience and lessons the young players can learn from playing against senior players in the Leasing.com Trophy…

I think you’ve only got to look at some of the goals we have conceded in the competition. The two against Oldham, one from a wide free-kick and the other from a corner. The goal we conceded against Fleetwood was from a corner. So out of the four goals we have conceded, three of them have been through set-pieces. It’s something we stress to the boys and also something we practice prior to the game, not that you would think that on the evening! We show them how important set-plays are to gaining results. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well you play between both penalty boxes and it’s what you do in the box which is what counts. Our play up until the penalty box has been very good but we haven’t converted enough of the chances and keeping the ball out of our goal particularly from set-pieces we haven’t done it well enough.

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