With the first team playing away in Middlesbrough last Friday night, I had the opportunity to travel down to London, to watch the Under-18s play Crystal Palace.
With the U18s failing to pick up a point since December, my hopes for a positive result were limited but I was proved wrong with a spirited performance as they came back from behind on two occasions. There’s fight in this team.
Palace currently sit second in the U18PL – 14 points below league champions, West Ham, and along with all the London-based teams in the South group of the U18PL, have superior squads compared to those clubs not in and around London.
This explains why positions one to five are all occupied by London clubs, due to the talent pool in the capital. Arsenal are the only London-based team that are not in the top half of the league.
But, despite Palace being in a healthy league position, the home fixture, back in November gave me confidence that Norwich would be competitive.
Palace’s U18s side is orientated toward a counter-attacking style, allowing their wide attacking players to progress them up the pitch. Unlike league champions West Ham, they don’t have as much authority in games to dictate them from the middle of the park, hence why teams like Norwich are able to penetrate through at times.
City lined up in their familiar 4-3-1-2 shape, meaning their extra bodies in midfield put Palace on the back foot.
There were three trialists representing Norwich, which was also the case against Tottenham in their last game. One of them was Charlie Wilson, a centre-back from Everton, who played in both of the recent matches.
As well as Wilson, there was Ackeme Francis-Burrell, a midfielder on trial from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and also a goalkeeper who is still anonymous. This means there were five different trialists across the last two games.
Both Wilson and Francis-Burrell are second-year scholars, meaning if they were to sign they would aim to be with the Under-21s next season.
Wilson is vocal across the back line, something the U18s have lacked at times, and against Palace he also demonstrated his strength in the air, as well as making a goal-saving tackle in the first half. He also worked well as a partnership with captain Alfie Doy, covering the pockets of space when Doy chose to be aggressive.
But it was Francis-Burrell who was arguably the standout trialist as he put in an energetic performance, linking up with the strikers and midfielders to a good standard, and helped the team defensively too. There were also some nice moments of flair, which enabled him to get past his opponents.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to last the whole match, as it was his first game in almost a couple of months.
Norwich started the game poorly, as they conceded early on, which has happened on numerous occasions in 2023.
The response to that opening goal was positive though. Micheal Reindorf held up the ball to England U16s star Elliot Myles, and he finished clinically. From that moment on, the U18s started to grow in belief and were playing their passes with good intensity.
One of Palace’s tactics was to get the ball in behind the left centre-back, and the left-back. Due to City’s left back, Jaiden Owen being more attack-minded andAlfie Doy playing on his less preferred side, there were opportunities for Palace to create danger on that side.
Not only did they target that side, their winger, Franco Umeh-Chibueze, was causing problems. Umeh-Chibueze has a superb physical frame, meaning his strength and pace were difficult to handle. However, Jaiden Owen managed to contain him for large parts of the game, which was pleasing.
Across 2023, Norwich have been poor at conceding goals in quick succession – especially in the first half. This wasn’t to be the case on Saturday, as the U18s were brave and got tight to the Palace midfielders. City demonstrated a willingness to press effectively and reaped their rewards.
Norwich’s first goal was a great moment of quality. Micheal Reindorf held onto the ball superbly and released Elliot Myles at the right time, for Myles to smash home from just inside the box.
Elliot Myles is an U16s player, with an extreme pedigree as he’s played striker for England U16s, as well as captaining the Welsh U16s too. It’s likely he’ll sign a scholar deal and be with the U18s next season.
The second goal for City had huge levels of fortune to it, as Palace played a poorly executed pass to the goalkeeper, which Michael Reindorf anticipated and played it around the keeper for 2-1.
Reindorf has had a really promising season for the U18s and has taken the responsibility to provide goals and assists, since the main two attacking threats of Ken Aboh and Fin Welch have moved up to the 21s.
Taking it back to last season, Reindorf had serious misfortune in front of goal, despite showing serious promise in the final third. In that campaign, Reindorf had a tendency to be more direct, beating players for pace compared to this season where his body has been back towards goal, pinning defenders in, so that City can retain possession.
This season, he has had more responsibility to be the attacking outlet that the 18s rely upon, and he’s demonstrated some promise of doing that. His intelligence to make runs to stretch opposition defences is top draw but sometimes teammates struggle to get on the same wavelength because they tend to go for safer passes. This results in him becoming isolated.
I’m sure Michael himself would agree that he should have scored close to ten goals this season, as he’s had some wonderful opportunities. Instead, he’s only managed four, which is still respectable.
A player that’s working his way back towards match sharpness is U18s striker, Alex Roberts. He has been injured for the majority of the season but has returned for the final few games and had two good chances last Saturday but he failed to capitalise on them.
Roberts signed a professional deal with Norwich in the summer, so he’ll want to justify the faith the club have put in him.
Back to Palace, where Norwich went into halftime, leading 2-1. The first half was a typical U18s football match; expansive, end-to-end, and a high tempo. City had to rely on some poor finishing from Palace, some good saves from the trialist goalkeeper, as well as a goal-saving tackle by Wilson.
One observation was the quality of City’s goalkeeper. The trialist really made an impression, with his distribution and handling consistent across the ninety minutes. It’ll be interesting to see if Norwich and the player find agreement on a contract. His height could be a determining factor for Norwich, as he isn’t overly tall.
Sixty-three minutes in and Norwich found themselves 3-2 down, after some lapses of concentration. Both of Crystal Palace’s wingers were able to get on the score sheet.
This didn’t stop Norwich from battling hard and trying to create chances. The whole midfield brought energy to the side, especially the substitute of U16s midfielder Hugo Valencia-Gomez. He normally operates as a box-to-box midfielder, but Gregg Crane gave him the nod to play deeper which worked well. Hugo was excellent at getting his head up and starting attacks which helped them gain control in the latter stages of the match.
It took Norwich 99 minutes for their bravery and endeavour to be rewarded. A set piece into the box was met by the head of trialist Charlie Wilson, who knocked it down in a dangerous area. Following a goalmouth scramble, Reindorf tucked it home.
So, after a terrible run of results, that performance would have lifted the U18s, and made the week’s preparation leading to Aston Villa on Saturday that bit more enjoyable.
I’ll end this article with a plea. The Under-21s game vs Southampton is at Carrow Road on Sunday (2pm KO) and at the time of writing it looks like over half of the South Stand will be filled up, which is sensational.
If you can attend, please do so. I know it means a lot to the players.