U23s manager previews the new season ahead of Arsenal tripFriday night marks the start of the Premier League 2 season, and a trip to Boreham Wood to face our Arsenal counterparts for our Under-23 squad.
The league system has been slightly rejigged this year – formerly the Under-21 Premier League, it is now a competition for U23 players (plus up to three overage outfield players and a goalie) and there will be a few more games to contest in revamped cup competitions.
Martin Kuhl, the U23 manager, believes that the Royals are in amongst the elite teams in the country on merit after a strong showing last season. They were promoted to the top tier at the end of 2014/15 after the 22-team league was split the year before, and he feels his boys deserve to battle it out with some of the best young talents on these shores after a solid and productive showing last year.
“We’ve stayed in there this year – a couple of years ago there was a cut and we were in the bottom half, and we were disappointed,” said Kuhl. “But then we got promoted and I think we stand in there on merit.
“Teams that play us prepare differently, and they know they’re in for a game. That’s credit to the lads and the quality they have got here. The overall aim is to get them in the first team.
“But we’ve got games against the likes of United and City and into the Premier League International Cup – last year Renato Sanches played against Chelsea for Benfica in that competition last year. That’s the standard.
“The Premier League 2 is also a decent competition. Manchester United won in last year and we had decent games against them. They have a little more money than us, but we work hard with the lads and fair play to our lads – they do well.”
The U23s system is geared towards preparing players for the first-team squad – and that’s what Kuhl hopes he can continue to do so in the new campaign. A new group-stage format in the Premier League Cup, and our first ever involvement in the Premier League International Cup, means that the U23 campaign will be more akin to the rigours of first-team football.
“The games are thick and fast, which is more geared to how the first-team play,” he explained. “There will be test all round for the coaching staff and the players. The first team players can be playing between 40 and 60 games. Our lads have to be fit enough to do that.
“Chelsea aren’t in the U19s Champions League this year because their first team didn’t make it, so they’re going to get European friendlies. We can’t afford that – so these games, for our development, will be massive.
“We don’t underestimate that and we don’t take things lightly. We want to perform for this club and no-one else. If we can get players into the first team and the gaffer’s happy with that, we’ll kick on from there.
“Preparations have been very good. We’ve tried to follow on from the philosophy of the manager, so we’ve done a lot of the same drills that they do – they have started well, and hopefully they can continue that.
“Tennai Watson has been in there already – I thought he was exceptional against Plymouth. Liam Kelly and Zak Jules have both been in there as well, and Jack Stacey, Tariqe Fosu and Aaron Kuhl all have some first-team experience. There are a few about and it’s a dog-eat-dog to get games.
“The manager’s philosophy is very similar to the Academy, so it’s about adapting small bits rather than large chunks. The more we can support the first-team, the better.”
And Kuhl will be striking a balance between keeping the players’ development ticking over and instilling the must-win mentality in the younger players as they looks to break into senior level football.
He continued: “I set targets to win every game. But I also set targets to develop players. I think in the Under-23s development and winning go side-by-side because the next step is the first team, where it’s mostly about winning.
“Even there they still develop, and the mentality and the technical and tactical philosophy of the club is massive and we have to prepare them for whoever the manager is.
“At the moment there is competition there for them – they have seen what the manager has done and the first-team has started fantastic, and long may it continue. But we want these boys pushing them – if we can do that, we’ll get a healthy club.”
Click here to take a look at the U23 fixture list for 2016/17, and click here for more news about the youth squad.