Considering how synonymous Southampton are with bringing talented players through the academy, seeing both the Under-18s and Under-21s lose 7-2 in the last two weeks is a bit of a shock.
Results often don’t matter in youth development, but those scorelines to Chelsea and Norwich respectively is rather different. Normally the younger Saints in those age groups are playing a year or two up from their actual age because the 18-year-old’s are in around the first team.
But a look at the match day squads for the senior side tells a different story. Of the 18 that were named for the 3-1 defeat to Manchester City, only James Ward-Prowse was an academy graduate.
Young left back Matthew Targett was a regular during the first weeks of the season, but only as he deputised for the injured Ryan Bertrand, and was often scapegoated by supporters as his introduction to the Premier League was rather stormy.
While Targett may not be ready to be first choice left-back, it was expected that Harrison Reed would play a more important part this season for Southampton, seeing as Jack Cork and Morgan Schneiderlin moved on last season.
But instead, Feyenoord captain Jordy Clasie and Chelsea reserve Oriol Romeu were recruited. Despite Reed impressing during his cameos last season, he’s barely made an impact on the first team during 2015/16. It’s difficult to figure out why. If Reed was required to bulk up due to his smaller frame, he could quite easily use Clasie as an example not to; the Dutchman may have more experience, but Reed is very similar both physically and in playing style.
Reed may have rued Saints crashing out of the Europa League, but a loan spell out to a Football League club for a few months to get valuable senior game-time may have made sense instead of the woefully inadequate U-21 Premier League.
Yet Sam Gallagher and Jack Stephens are reasons why that might not be the case. Gallagher was part of the U-21 Premier League cup win, scoring the winner in the final against Blackburn, but has barely played for Championship strugglers MK Dons this term.
Jack Stephens was a different case. Having partnered fellow Saints loanee Jordan Turnbull in Swindon Town’s run to the League One play-off final last season, his next loan to Middlesbrough was meant to be the next step. However, he’s barely played under Aitor Karanka.
Turnbull has stayed at the Robins, but they have been closer to the drop than the play-offs. Of the Saints loan brigade, only Jason McCarthy has really impressed, becoming a key part of League Two’s equal-best defence in terms of goals conceded in Wycombe.
With Gallagher and Stephens struggling to get into Championship teams, it is no wonder that Ronald Koeman has favoured signing players from outside to provide decent cover in case the likes of Graziano Pellè or Jose Fonte are injured. That doesn’t make it easier to accept though.
With Mauricio Pochettino’s faith in the academy at Tottenham bearing fruit, it’s not difficult to want Stephens and Gallagher in and around the Saints squad, instead of away on loan.
It is difficult to really judge who is at fault for the academy stars not making the jump that plenty have done before. Is it Koeman for not showing faith and patience in youth? He did that at Feyenoord, but was that out of financial necessity? The opinion that the Eredivisie is perhaps easier for younger players to be thrown into has to be considered, too.
Is it the Premier League itself? The physicality of the division is a huge factor in why the likes of Jake Hesketh and Ryan Seager haven’t broken through yet, but playing against just their own age group benefits no one.
It could be all those, plus the fact that Saints are in much ruder health nowadays. The youngsters not being chucked in the deep end may help protect them, and make sure they are ready to face the glaring lights of the Premier League.
But McCarthy gaining experience at Wycombe under the careful hands of Gareth Ainsworth may be a reason to send some of the better prospects out on loan. Unless the reserve league is overhauled, sending young Saints to Swindon, Barnet or Exeter makes sense.
Yet trust in the youngsters wouldn’t go amiss either; Les Reed’s namesake Harrison undoubtedly needs that, and Stephens could have done with a little more faith. The strange transfer that was Cuco Martina from Twente is proof of that.