There was satisfaction in Sweden for our Under-19s as they scored three without reply against IF Elfsborg and established a healthy advantage prior to the second leg at Cobham at the end of the month.
Charlie Brown’s brace and a penalty converted by Billy Gilmour translated a controlling performance into a lead on the scoreboard for Joe Edwards’s side, who are now two games away from rejoining the main UEFA Youth League draw at the Round of 16 stage.
Afterwards, Edwards reflected on an evening of experiences for his youngsters, who showed patience and maturity at the Boras Arena. The hosts set up in a deep defensive shape out of possession, which meant opportunities in the final third were limited, though the Blues kept playing and two goals in the final five minutes sent them back to London happy.
‘It was a really realistic experience for the lads of what a tough European away game can be like,’ the manager commented. ‘Elfsborg’s main game plan was to really condense the space on the pitch and be difficult to beat, which they were very good at.
‘They were compact and there was hardly any space for us to play through despite the good technical players we have. Any time they did get close to us, they were aggressive and always looking to hurt us on the counter-attack so it was definitely not an easy game. The early goal settled us but we had to maintain our discipline and patience, while always probing for more goals.
‘We didn’t really get a hold of the game at the start of the second half like we had in the first but we kept plugging away and the work we did with the ball started to take its toll on them. It’s a fantastic result for us, to come away in Europe and win 3-0 in the first leg.’
Gilmour’s penalty was buried into the bottom corner after Marc Guehi had been clumsily brought to the ground inside the 18-yard box and the Scottish midfielder praised the execution of a persistent game plan from his team-mates.
‘It was a hard game but we kept moving the ball quickly and kept moving them across the pitch,’ the 17-year-old explained. ‘You can’t always attack, attack, attack and that’s when you have to keep your heads, keep using one or two touches to move the ball sharp, and shoot whenever you get the chance.
‘In the end, they couldn’t keep up with that and in the last minutes you could see that’s when the goals came. Obviously we have the second leg at home to come and we need to see what that brings but we’re in a good position in the tie.’
A decent attendance greeted our Under-19s in Boras, a city located some 40 miles east of Gothenburg, and Edwards was grateful for the part they played in the first-leg contest.
‘There were a lot of good experiences for us,’ he went on. ‘Fair play to the local people because we had a fantastic crowd – 3,600 is the biggest crowd I’ve seen at one of our European games.
'Whenever there were moments when we made fouls or they had opportunities, there was a bit of pressure from the crowd on us which was fantastic.'
— Joe Edwards
‘They were getting close to us and putting in some niggly challenges so you have to keep focused and keep going. Aside from a couple of sloppy spells, we did really well and the scoreline speaks for itself. Against Molde at home, we scored 10 but still conceded so to come here and keep a clean sheet is really positive for the second leg.’
A busy period of six games in 18 days has come to an end and the group will now have time to rest and recover during the upcoming international break. Edwards had words of credit for the way his mostly teenage team had coped with the schedule, a repetition of games they will have to become accustomed to as their careers developed.
‘First and foremost, you’re talking about what a physical demand it is but not for one spell in any game have I looked at our players and felt as a team that we looked tired,’ said the boss.
‘In fact, in the latter stages of games, we’ve always looked the stronger team and been pushing for more goals, whether to make a comeback or win a game like at Arsenal on Saturday.
‘That’s a big credit to the boys and it’s something they need to show because a lot of them want to be going on loan as their next step. Our boys in the Championship and League One are playing that Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday schedule every week so it’s good to get used to those demands now.
‘We’ve won five of the six games and across three different competitions we’ve qualified in the Checkatrade Trophy, we’re in a really good position to make the play-off round in the UEFA Youth League and we’re in a decent league position. The one thing we really have to kick on with now is improve our home form and that’s a challenge we look forward to after the international break.’