Similarly to its Under-21 scheme, the Barclays Premier League created a more formalized setup for the Under-18 level (with a very similar structure), called the Barclays U18 Premier League. All participating teams were broken into three groups for the first phase, and around the turn of the year re-calibrated into an Elite Group and two others below it. Former Academy Manager Steve Cooper was appointed Liverpool U18s manager after Mike Marsh vacated the post in order to join Brendan Rodgers on the first-team bench.
The drafting of younger players into the senior squad discussed last week trickled into the U18 level, forcing the team to consistently field 15 and 16 year olds. The adjustment was difficult at times, and it was no surprise that they struggled to start the season, shipping goals and being generally very shaky in defense, earning a mere 2 points through four matches. The exciting attacking trio of Jerome Sinclair, Daniel Trickett-Smith, and Kristoffer Peterson impressed as the U18s rebounded and won their next three, putting them in position to advance to the Elite Group. Losses in four of their last five matches in Phase One caused them to fall just shy of third-place Crystal Palace, however, in the top group for the next phase.
From a results standpoint, Phase Two was an even bigger struggle, with the promotion of standouts Jack Dunn, Jordan Lussey, and Peterson to the U21s leaving further gaps in the U18 squad. Despite stumbling to a 5th place finish in the Phase Two group, Trickett-Smith and Jordan Rossiter, among others, showed enough promise to leave Cooper pleased with their progress and optimistic that the experience would benefit the largely returning U18 squad in the upcoming season.
The U18s also competed in the FA Youth Cup and breezed through to the quarterfinals, winning their three preliminary matches by a combined score of 12-1. Jack Dunn took the headlines by scoring twice in the second half of the quarterfinal matchup with Hull City, and Rossiter and Trickett-Smith dominated the midfield as the U18s coasted to victory at the KC Stadium. They were rightly confident for their semifinal tie with Chelsea, but two late goals—both soft from a defensive standpoint—spoiled an otherwise competitive first leg and left Liverpool with a 2-0 deficit to overturn. Cooper's attempts to channel the spirit of Istanbul looked to pay off early in the second leg, with Peterson scoring a wonderful solo goal, but Liverpool conceded twice to end their hopes of winning the prestigious cup.
The difficulties faced by the U18 last season should not be overly concerning to fans, as a combination of relative youth and the new playing philosophy implemented throughout the Liverpool organization made the adjustments a step too large. Most of the mainstays from last year are expected to return, and they, along with rumored new signing Sergi Canos, can use last season's experience to hit the ground running this season. Later this week I'll be back to profile some U18 players worth keeping an eye on this year and a recap of the first preseason friendly against Derby coming up on Tuesday.