Clinical finishes from Freddie Potts, Keenan Forson and Conor Coventry delighted West Ham United U23s lead coach Dmitri Halajko on Friday evening, seeing off Leicester City U23s 3-1 at Rush Green Stadium.
The young Hammers were on the back foot for stretches of the first half in a game they knew they needed to win to have realistic aspirations of climbing the Premier League 2 Division 1 table.
Undeterred, West Ham took the lead shortly before the interval when 17-year-old Potts scored his first goal at U23s level, reacting smartly to loop the rebound in after Frederik Alves’ header had bounced against the crossbar.
Leicester hit back almost immediately afterwards through Kasey McAteer’s thunderous finish, but the Irons rallied and - following a brilliant Joseph Anang save from close range - scored twice more in the second half via accurate snapshots from midfielders Forson and Coventry, who both found the bottom corner from just inside the area.
West Ham U23s continued to carve out chances as the game wore on and could have added further goals to their tally, but in the end had already shown enough quality at either end of the pitch to make such moments decisive.
“I thought it was a really good second-half performance,” Halajko told whufc.com. “In the first half, we were a little bit too deep and they were on top of the game in some spells, but in the second half I thought we were the better team.
“I thought we passed the ball better and had more of a threat. We pressed from a higher starting position. We were the dominant team in the second half.
“Our quality in the final third made the difference. We finished off probably 50 per cent of our chances. We still could be more clinical, but we certainly were more clinical than we have been in other games.
“We didn’t quite get a clean sheet, but we minimised their chances. Then there were a few big moments: Joseph Anang made a really big save for us at a crucial time, and that was important for us to go on and win the game.
“I thought there were some top performances out there too: young Freddie Potts and Jamal Baptiste, both 17-years-old, were outstanding. They really contributed towards the win.”
The development squad’s starting line-up was bolstered by the presence of first-team players Arthur Masuaku and Andriy Yarmolenko, both of whom played just over 70 minutes as part of their recovery processes from respective long-term injuries.'
We made a few subtle tweaks at half-time and the group took on that information really well. They’ve done really well at that recently
With his side scoring and almost instantaneously conceding just before half-time, Halajko was pleased by how his players, less and more experienced alike, channeled their disappointment towards dominating the second half as they did.
The 3-1 win leaves the Hammers just four points behind Leicester – the team who sit just above the relegation zone – with six league games left to go, including a game in hand.
Halajko explained: “It was really disappointing to score and then go and concede within two minutes – we weren’t happy with that at all, and neither were the players at half-time.
“We made a few subtle tweaks at half-time and the group took on that information really well. They’ve done really well at that recently.
“We haven’t had much time as a group on the training field at the moment because of COVID bubbles, including players who’d trained with the first team. The team that played tonight were split across three groups this week.
“We have to try and give them quick bits of information, and what they did really well against Liverpool last week – and really well again tonight – was they took on that information and put it straight into practice. Their ability to learn and execute the advice they’re given is really at a top level at the moment.
“We believe we’re capable of getting more wins and more results. If we can continue to perform how we did in that second half, I think that should continue.”