Dmitri Halajko: West Ham U23s’ clean sheet against Valencia was massive
Impressive compactness at the back was key to West Ham United U23s’ victory over Valencia ‘B’, according to lead coach Dmitri Halajko.
Going into their Premier League International Cup 2019/20 Group B opener, the Hammers were facing a tough test up against the development squad of the Champions League-level Spanish club.
The build-up to the game at the Chigwell Construction Stadium featured another twist when Reece Hannam withdrew from the starting line-up shortly before kick-off due to illness, and was replaced by U18s regular Harrison Ashby.
Ashby joined 15-year-old Jamal Baptiste and 17-year-old Keenan Appiah-Forson in a youthful-looking defence, and Halajko was full of praise for the players’ achievements in keeping a clean sheet against prodigious opposition in the 1-0 victory.
He said: “It was a really tough game, probably one of the hardest ones we’ve had, that we edged. It was a young back four for us - a different back four. They haven’t played together as a back four at all, especially not at this level.
“Reece had been ill the past couple of days, so we were just monitoring how he was throughout game day, hoping that he could make it, and unfortunately he couldn’t, so we brought in Harrison who’s just come back off international duty with Scotland U19s to play in there, and Jamal, who’s only 15-years-old and played centre-half alongside him.
“Harrison normally plays right-back, Keenan normally plays centre midfield, Jamal hasn’t played at this level before, so for them to gel together today and keep a clean sheet is a massive achievement.”
In a tight fixture against their technically-gifted opponents, the Hammers took an early lead when good work from Ashby saw the ball worked to Powell, who slid it through for Nathan Holland to run clear and score in the eighth minute.
The team in Claret and Blue asserted a measure of control in a first half without too many clear-cut chances, but the visitors were on much more of an even keel in the second period, despite themselves not creating too many huge openings.
“We edged it 1-0 and I think that’s probably just about a fair reflection on the game, I think,” Halajko observed. “There were times in the game when they were on top, when we had to dig in, and there were times in the game when we were on top, and we had a couple of chances because of that.
“We knew we wanted to go and press them and try and unsettle them on the ball, and then play our football when that allowed, and I think that worked well first half.
“I think we edged the first half, and we were good to come in with a 1-0 lead. The second half I think was a lot, lot tighter, and it ultimately could’ve gone either way.”
The result marks the continuation of the U23s’ fine run under Halajko, who has yet to lose a game in charge of the side – form that spans 13 competitive and friendly matches.
That record will once again be put to the test when the U23s play host to West Bromwich Albion on Monday 16 September in the Premier League 2 Division 2, of which they currently sit second, behind leaders Manchester United only on goal difference.