The free hit at APOEL last week felt like the perfect opportunity for Mauricio Pochettino to give Marcus Edwards his first start for Tottenham.
If you only watch first team football and pay no interest to our youth teams, this will likely be your only prior knowledge of our young attacking midfielder:
Edwards made his debut in this match in September 2016, coming off the bench against Gillingham, aged 17. Now 19, and without having seen a single minute of first team football since that day, he might be starting to question why he (eventually) signed a new contact.
Edwards has been doing his thing for Spurs’ youth teams since before he was 16. Impeccable balance and dribbling (after Mousa Dembélé he is the best dribbler at the club), excellent creative vision, and occasional final product have been the order of the day, and not much has changed during that time. He’s got a little sturdier — though, to be honest, strength has never really been an issue due to his low centre of gravity; he’s got a little better at pressing; he’s got a little less close to the first team picture.
Pochettino’s Messi ‘comparisons’ at the time were based on style only, and in no way was he suggesting that Edwards could be as good as one of the greatest footballers of all time. But Pochettino virtually retracted the comment this week, saying ‘Maybe I made a mistake because I believed it was positive and he was going to take it in a positive way.’ In that statement he seems to almost take responsibility for the comment and subsequent reaction and then instantly shirk it — let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest it might be the language barrier confusing matters. But ultimately if the comment has not had the desired effect, it’s as much Pochettino’s misjudgement as it is anything to do with the player.
But this, it turns out, is not the only controversial uttering of Pochettino on Edwards. In his ‘Brave New World’ book/diary, Pochettino says of Edwards ‘He has authority and behavioural problems, and we have to look at the bigger picture to find out the root cause.’ Perhaps it was a strategically placed comment designed to encourage Edwards through tough love, but that must have been pretty difficult for a teenager to see in print.
Edwards’ reported attitude problems have been accepted as truth. As a 16-year old he was seen by some as a sulker. He apparently had run-ins with the hierarchy. Before he signed his new contract, there were rumours of rifts with the club over assurances that he wanted regarding his route to the first team. But by all accounts these are things of the past, and Edwards has got through this fairly typical teenage phase and knuckled down, worked hard, and performed pretty consistently for a player of his type. Indeed, there have been no indications of any problems from his on-pitch behaviour or performances. And if there were such significant issues, why would the club have offered Edwards a contract that runs until 2020?
Even if there were still problems brewing, Pochettino has never shied away from playing other players with ‘attitude problems’: he signed Moussa Sissoko (famed for not turning up every week at Newcastle) and Serge Aurier (over whom well-known on and off pitch question marks existed) and continues to play Danny Rose despite him orchestrating and giving one of the most incredibly damning footballer interviews in recent years. You could even bundle Dele Alli into this conversation, who Pochettino has (rightly) persisted with despite various comments to the press about his character.
It must have been difficult for Edwards to be the best, most talented player at basically every level he’s played at for the last eight to ten years and see very little progression during that time. I could imagine that having a demotivating effect, yet he is still doing the business in the majority of matches — a regular threat, a regular winner of penalties, a regular assist-er of goals and a regular scorer himself.
And his omission (if one could refer to it as such) from the APOEL match was due to ‘performance’ if you take Pochettino at face value. Following that logic one must assume that he is not be ticking the right boxes in training, and that Kazaiah Sterling and Luke Amos are, because if it’s about performance in matches, Edwards (and others) has been playing at levels well above Sterling and Amos over the past 12-18 months. I am a fan of both of these players but there is no denying that they had both dropped off previous performance levels, and I had started to wonder if terrific early potential had started to fall away. Conversely, Edwards has been mostly consistent. One could also suggest that Nkoudou’s performances have been pretty diabolical for the first team, so ‘performance’ meritocracy doesn’t seem to be consistently at play.
There are so many schools of thought on Edwards:
He’s overrated, another John Bostock. — He’s on a different level to John Bostock.
He’s got an attitude. — Yet the club gave him a lengthy contract.
He’s not physically ready. — Though he was physically ready to play against Gillingham nearly 18 months ago.
He’s 19 and his time will come. — This is an optimistic reading that I’m not against accepting.
My opinion is a little different. I think Pochettino is struggling generally to integrate youth players. I’ll explain why.
Since Pochettino took charge he has only truly brought through one youngster: Harry Winks. We’ve seen Josh Onomah have some game time (albeit in uncomfortable positions); Cameron Carter-Vickers came and went on-loan (which is fair, he looked raw); Anton Walkes made a debut and then was sent to the MLS to get regular game-time; Filip Lesniak had a few minutes and was sold; Anthony Georgiou (who most youth-watchers assumed was destined for League One or Two) has had a debut; and now Sterling has five minutes of first team football to his name. In the four years prior to Pochettino, we brought through a really good number of young players, and Pochettino arrived with such a strong reputation for developing youth. So what’s going wrong?
Many will argue that I am biased in favour of youth players, and I cannot deny that this is the case. I openly admit that I would generally rather we put more faith in maximising our academy investment than sign players as punts, such is the level at which our academy output is. Were our youth players less good, of course I wouldn’t say that. However, I am not calling for just any youth players to be called up to the first team, and to be honest I generally had not been supportive of Georgiou, Luke Amos or Tashan Oakley-Boothe getting mintues, because there are others I prefer. Kazaiah Sterling is slightly different because we’re so lacking in striker depth and he seems back to his ‘old’ form recently. Most proponents of our academy only truly rate a relatively small proportion of our youth players and absolutely do not call for regular youth player starts.
However, we have, in my opinion, the best crop of youth players we’ve ever had at Spurs. Not everyone rates Onomah, but for me him, Walker-Peters, Edwards, Japhet Tanganga and Oliver Skipp would be in our top 10 at youth level since I’ve been paying attention, with Kane and Winks in there too amongst a few others that have since moved on – Milos Veljkovic, Ryan Mason, and one of Nabil Bentaleb, Paul-Jose M’Poku, Massimo Luongo or Steven Caulker, all of whom excelled at the various youth levels they played at.
The perception is that it’s undoubtedly more difficult to bring players through whilst the team is towards the top of the league, and playing such high stakes matches (it was arguably easier for Pochettino at Southampton where there was less at stake). The fear is that youth players will make catastrophic mistakes which will lead to… what? Goals, sendings off, nervousness setting in… the inability to pass to that player because they might make an error… something. And yet we’ve seen Walker-Peters play 90 solid minutes of Premier League football on his full debut where he barely put a foot wrong, whilst expensive signing Serge Aurier (who I like incidentally) has been fairly error prone. We’ve seen Winks come in and look like he’s always been a regular, making fewer mistakes than other established senior professionals. Is it really more risky to play Marcus Edwards than, say, GK Nkoudou? Is it more risky playing Walker-Peters than Serge Aurier? I feel like I should also mention Moussa Sissoko now, but it feels like kicking a puppy. Ultimately all new players require just as much patience as youth players. But youth players are not going to let you down in all cases, and particularly not when introduced carefully – ten minutes from the bench here and there is how they should be integrated, just like Winks experienced initially.
The reality is that our best youth players are at a level where they could be trusted. Indeed, most of our Under-23 side could probably slot in and ‘do a job’ amongst ten other first teamers, such is the base level of talent drilled into them over a number of years. That’s not to say that I think all of them should play; that would be ludicrous. But I do think that it’s time to be far more brave in terms of integrating youngsters, particularly at this point in the season when fatigue is becoming an issue, and rotation is required. APOEL would have been an ideal situation for a good number of them.
Moving specifically back to Edwards, Pochettino seems to be sending a message: if you want to play, you have to show that you are ready. But what does that actually mean? Pochettino picks the team. Pochettino manages the squad and its myriad of personalities. The responsibility lies at least partially with the manager, and to defer it entirely to a 19-year old kid seems like imperfect management. If Pochettino is waiting to be 100% satisfied that Edwards is ‘ready’, then he could be waiting a while and risk one of our greatest homegrown talents leaving. Pochettino has a ready-made excuse should Edwards’ not make it: he wasn’t right mentally. He had issues with authority. He didn’t perform in training. And yet if he *does* make it, he claims all of the credit. That doesn’t feel right; this is a joint venture. Recent press conference comments have made it feel otherwise.
Ultimately in Edwards’ case I think this comes down to talent against mentality, and Pochettino’s flexibility with certain players and not others. I know well enough from my own profession that, as a manager, it’s impossible to treat everyone equally, because everyone is different with different motivations and values. But being seen to treat people consistently is important, and if Edwards sees concessions given to those who don’t play as well as him or those who act up and still get games, then I imagine he’s going to find that frustrating.
The non-selection of homegrown players isn’t just a Pochettino issue, it’s an English football issue. The mentality towards youth players *has* to change, because the levels of English and English-grown youth players have changed. Recent competitions suggest that England are producing some of the best youth players in the world; these are excellent footballers who will not let their teams down. And Spurs have one of the top four or five academies in the country, perhaps even top three. Signing a cheap foreign back-up is not necessary because we have *free* back-ups waiting in the wings who just need a chance to be taken on them. Nobody can convince me that Onomah wouldn’t have done at least a good a job as Sissoko in our midfield three given the same game-time, saving us £30m and probably gaining us a very valuable young English asset by this point in the season.
Stakes are high, sure, and it’ll take a bit of bravery for Pochettino to initially take the plunge. But if he fails to bring through some of our quality young players then he is failing on one of his key objectives.
I was encouraged to see his comments yesterday in light of the Champions League squad being a little tight in terms of overseas players: “Now we’re so focussed in trying to bring more English players through the academy. Or if we don’t have this profile, try to take advantage of the English market and add more English players here.” If he truly means that then now is the time to give bench places to some of our talented young players who need to be given a taste of first team football. My short term targets for Pochettino for the rest of the season would be: bring back Onomah in January and give him Sissoko’s minutes. Integrate Edwards into the first team squad and use him from the bench occasionally. Start Edwards, Onomah and Walker-Peters against AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup. Give Skipp and Tanganga debuts in that match if we’re comfortably ahead. None of that would put us at risk. It’s all achievable.