Southampton Football Club has today announced a revamp of its professional development phase programme ahead of the 2020/21 season, as it looks to enhance the pathway into the first team for its young players.
As part of a considered structural and philosophical overhaul at that level, what was previously known as the Under-23s will now become the B team, with a number of changes being made to how they will operate.
These are designed to create an approach that replicates the first team and, in turn, strengthens the prospects of the club’s young players succeeding when they are given the opportunity of moving up to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s squad.
The changes will see the group mirror the training programmes, coaching and style of play of the first team. Training will also be organised so as not to clash with the first team, in order to ensure Hasenhüttl and his coaching staff can not only watch the youngsters train but actively participate in their sessions at times.
The B team, which will continue to play in Premier League 2 and additional competitions that were part of the Under-23s’ games programme, will also see home matches moved from Staplewood Campus to a primary base of AFC Totton, in order to provide players with regular experience of a stadium environment.
These games, which will also be supplemented by some fixtures at St Mary’s and occasional times when they will play at Staplewood, will also be arranged as much as possible so that they do not conflict with first-team fixtures, again allowing coaches to follow their progress in person more closely.
Chief Executive Martin Semmens, Director of Football Operations Matt Crocker and Hasenhüttl have worked together in creating the new approach alongside Academy Director Matt Hale, with Crocker explaining the thinking behind the changes.
“The club has a really successful player development system that has stood the test of time and helped produce many players up into the first team,” he said. “However, the first-team’s style of play is very different to what it has been previously and there was a real need from talking to both Martin and Ralph that we prepare the players in a different way so that, when they do step up and train or play with the first team, they are doing so with more confidence and a proper understanding of the sessions they are taking part in, as well as the system, tactics and style of play.
“When you are 18 or 19 and maybe only one player away from the first team, it’s really important to have that alignment and clarity of your role, clarity of the team and also of the physical demands required, so they have the toolkit to be successful.
“The Under-23s has always been viewed as the pinnacle of the Academy, but what we have tried to do here is make it more like a second first-team. It’s not so much about youth development at this stage anymore, it’s about replicating as much as possible a professional environment that prepares players for that step up into the first team.
matt crockerwe don't want this to be seen as a name change. it's about a move to help the young players be better prepared for playing for our club in the premier league.
director of football operations
“This all fits into some of the wider things going on here, like the development of a Southampton Football Club Playbook, which again maps out every position, how we are with the ball and without it, and how we are in those moments of transition, so there is absolute clarity among players and coaches of the work that we do here.
“What we don’t want this to be seen as is a gimmick or a name change. It’s not about what the team is called, it’s about a move to help the young players be better prepared for playing for our club in the Premier League.”
One of the additional advantages is that, by aligning the B team’s approach and training with the first team, coaches and players can gain far more valuable insights into where a young player actually is in terms of their development.
“One really important aspect of this is how we are mapping data,” said Crocker. “We are creating physical data sets that mean if, say James Ward-Prowse is covering X amount of distance in a game, we can set those parameters for one of our young central midfielders and compare his data directly to Ward-Prowse’s in every game and session.
“We can do that really accurately now because the sessions and style of play are the same, so players can have a really clear idea of how close or far away they actually are to the relevant individual players in the first team.”
The B team will continue to be led in matches by Dave Horseman, but there will be a more fluid coaching structure in training, as well as for those who will sit alongside him in games.
Crocker explained: “We will have coaches from the first team going to work with the B team players in their training sessions on a regular basis.
“It’s much more of a fluid structure and integrated approach, so already, for example, we have had Kelvin Davis and Craig Fleming taking B team sessions, supported by Dave Horseman.
“Craig Fleming is playing an important role in this. He has gone through from coaching the Under-18s to the Under-23s and now is a key coach in the first-team staff. He is someone who can really help make sure that alignment and coaching is right, and he’s got a pivotal role that when the players step up they are doing so at the right time with the right sessions.”
Additionally, to promote further integration throughout the age groups, Under-18s coach Carl Martin has moved into the first-team coaching staff on a 12-month sabbatical, allowing him to spend a full season with Hasenhüttl and his staff before then taking the methods and approaches he learns back into the Academy.
“A lot of clubs have a situation where their Academy and first team don’t always join up from a philosophy point of view,” said Crocker.
“Our nine-to-18s development programme is second to none in the country, but we now have a B team that is aligned much closer to first team, to the point of having the same physical programmes, psychological assessments and so on.”
The club is also hopeful fans will play their part by supporting the players at Totton as soon as crowds are allowed to attend.
“Playing at Staplewood can feel more like a training day for the players, because that’s where some of them they have come every day for the last 10 or 12 years,” said Crocker.
“We know we can never totally replicate St Mary’s, but what we can do is replicate a number of the things that do happen there, so our younger players are better prepared for when they do come to experience that.
“To even get 1,000 people in to watch their games regularly helps provide more of a true stadium experience. We really want the help of supporters to attend and create that match atmosphere for the players.”
The changes being made will also see the club be far more selective in terms of loan deals for its young players, with added benefits to them remaining at Staplewood rather than moving elsewhere on a short-term deal.
“The majority of young players here who have made the transition to the first team have done so without a loan,” said Crocker. “In most cases, it is a much better education for them to be here, if they are learning the first-team philosophy each day, the ways of working, being benchmarked against the first-team data set, and being seen training and playing day-in and day-out by Ralph and his coaches.
“There may still be times where we feel a loan does add value for a certain player, but we will be much more restrictive on the ones we do agree and those decisions will be made from a first team and Academy perspective, rather than loaning out someone at the first opportunity for them to go and gain experience of senior football somewhere else.
“Jake Vokins and Will Smallbone are great examples. They spent 12 months training with the first team and that enabled them to understand the physical and tactical demands required of them, and that allowed them to then transition really well when they were brought into the side.”
Southampton B team’s Premier League 2 fixtures have been confirmed and can be viewed by clicking here. Games will initially take place behind closed doors, but as soon as fans are allowed access then entry details for home matches will be communicated on southamptonfc.com and via our social media channels.