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The Curious Case of the Checkatrade Trophy and Premier League U23 Teams

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When the FA needed to raise the profile of the Football League Trophy in 2016, few people expected them to make groundbreaking changes. In a move that was shockingly bold, the organisers decided to expand the tournament, inviting select youth academies around England to compete. The likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham would provide an U21 'B' Team for the group stages, designed to give their players a chance of real football and to offer some tantalising scalps for lower league teams bidding for glory. 

At least, that is what the FA narrative would suggest. In reality, the move has been polar at best and steadfastly refused at worse. Just Google EFL Trophy B Teams and you'll be met with a wave of discontent and petitions, urging a return to normality. 

The regulations are complicated. EFL clubs must field Full Strength available squads- I won't even try and define the doozy that is that term- whilst 'B' teams must be fully under 21 from the start of the tournament, besides three overage player spots. Of course, this doesn't stop them fielding U21 players from the first team squad. Chelsea played Portsmouth this week and Charly Musonda stole the limelight- he has top division experience in England and Spain, not to mention a senior Chelsea goal. 

For Premier League managers, the presence of B Teams in the competition allows a good look at youth prospects...

But at least he is still a young player. Some of the earlier group stage rounds saw the likes of Stoke City field Charlie Adam, Lee Grant and Glen Johnson against Rochdale, with a combined age of 99. This is hardly giving the club's young charges a chance to shine. On the other hand, some clubs would argue it allowed fringe players to get valuable match minutes. David Amartey, Kelechi Iheanacho, Leonardo Ulloa all completed the full 90 against Carlisle in a 0-1 win in October for instance, when they were all struggling to make Premier League matchday squads. 

Have 'B' teams really improved the competitiveness of the tournament? A quick scan down the results would suggest they have had a minimal impact, if any at all. Sunderland found themselves losing 3-1 at Scunthorpe in August, while Tottenham's youths went down 4-3 against AFC Wimbledon despite leading two nil at one stage.

Some sides have fared better. The very strong Chelsea youngsters have seen off the likes of MK Dons and Portsmouth and face competition finalists for two years running, Oxford United, at the end of January. They also boast a formidable defensive record having only conceded once in the knockout rounds, scoring six times in reply across two matches. In particular, Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was a key component in England's U17 World Cup triumph has impressed notching four goals to be the competition's joint-top scorer. Chelsea haven't had it all their own way though- the defensive frailty of the team was seen in August when they let slip a 2-0 lead late on against Plymouth Argyle, who then won 5-4 on penalties. 

So what is the competition looking like at the Quarter Final stage? Every B team save Chelsea and Leicester have fallen by the wayside, the majority dropping out of the group stage and finishing bottom. These two teams are probably the underdogs behind Peterborough, Oxford, Fleetwood and Shrewsbury- teams all ensconced in the top half of League One. League Two surprise package Lincoln are also looking to return to Wembley after recent triumphs and minnows Yeovil have also managed to sneak through.

As such, you would probably be making a safe bet in assuming that a Football League side will come out as the overall triumph. If Chelsea or Leicester (or indeed both) did manage to make it to the final, however, this would most certainly serve as the death knell for the integrity and respectability for the entire tournament. 

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