December 9, 2017

When does Spurs’ young talent get a chance?

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.

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  • Hayman Harris says:

    Agree100%.Poch keeps talking up the squad but does not give them game time.Some players haven’t kicked a ball in 3 months. If given a chance how could they ever be close to match fitness. What’s happened to OakleyBoothe. Under 18s play under 23s/prem reserve and struggle most weeks.

    • WindyCOYS says:

      Oakley-Boothe seems to be unfortunately stuck in this sort of middle ground between U23s and first team right now which I think is to his detriment. He’s someone that’s actually not played *that* well for our U18s/U23s, so I’d rather he be playing matches at this point.

  • JimmyG2 says:

    Exactly so. I have been saying the same in my blog for months, though in a more oblique way because I lack your in-depth knowledge.
    Didn’t Scott Parker warn recently against buying in average players who block our own. I put Sissoko and probably Aurier in this category and Dembele now.

    • WindyCOYS says:

      I missed that Parker quote, but it’s fascinating:

      ‘My problem is clubs bringing in players who block pathways but then don’t play. The superstars are fine because we all learn from them. The problem is average players who then block that position from a young player.’

      Thank you so much for pointing this out, I’m delighted to see it recognised from within the club!

  • Overcspurs says:

    Yes agreed. Infact very impressed by Walker-Peters so far.Sometimes even senior players didn’t perform.eg Ericksen.Might as well try out new youngsters!

    • WindyCOYS says:

      Well, quite. If we’d continued integrating Edwards after that Gillingham game, perhaps he’d have been ready to step into a creative midfield role to give Eriksen a rest by now.

  • norman55 says:

    iagree 100% look at the game against apoel on wednesday game over why did poch wait so long to bring on sterling you have to try these guys in games like this they don”t become top class without playing against top teams

    • WindyCOYS says:

      I agree. Edwards was ready 18 month ago for minutes against Gillingham, came on and looked great. And now at 19 he’s not ready for a few minutes in a dead rubber vs APOEL? I just can’t get behind that.

  • Benn O'Saurus says:

    A great read as ever Windy. Thank you. Two questions out of pure curiosity:

    First, do the youth set up play in a similar tactical style? Is Poche holding good players back because they’re playing well but not playing his game?

    Second, what do you reckon about how young players are training with the senior squad? Have any bearing or totally irrelevant?

    • WindyCOYS says:

      Good questions. I would say they play a similar but not identical style. They play out from the back at all levels. The pressing is slightly different though for sure.

      Re: training, I think we are too timid with which players train with the first team regularly and do make some slightly baffling calls. E.g. Oakley-Boothe and Georgiou are currently training with the first team full-time. Neither had played consistently well for the youth teams for a year before this, so I was slightly baffled that they were ‘promoted’ before others.

  • Tom Can says:

    I admire your willingness to support the youth team but you’re wrong.

    First off the attitude problems are real with Edwards and are not comparable to international pros with reputable standing in the game like Aurier and Rose, they will be allowed more leeway than a youth player, that is just life in any industry, people higher up the ladder get more slack than others further down the food chain because they’ve earnt it. When Edwards is 28 i’m sure his manager will let him have a long sulk in training for a few weeks and still pick him.

    I’ve been following Winks and Onomah for years, seen them many times live in reserve teams and for England its obvious why Winks is playing regularly and Onomah isn’t because Winks even playing rubbish games at Broadhall Way was competing every moment of the game, his attitude is first class and Onomah can drift for long periods and doesn’t work hard enough. Not even trusted to play in a 2 man midfield at Villa right now. This is why Onomah is on loan and Winks is playing, its why Pochettino would rather play Sissoko over Onomah because he knows that Sissoko will do the job defensively. Whatever you think of Sissoko its the fact of life, if we played Onomah instead of him we would not get the same physical dominance in midfield and work rate.

    Pochettino’s target is to win the Premier League and Champions League, if he we were a midtable team with an average squad like years gone past i’m sure he would have played Walker-Peters but hes going for the title so took the PSG right back. Do you want to be a team on the bubble of the top 6 with young players waiting to see if they are good enough or do you want to finish 1st, 2nd and 3rd?

    I’ve seen you post various times that ‘Pochettino has only brought one youth player through’. It is wrong, he has improved 19 year old buy ins like Dier and Alli from few million pound players to 50m+ talents, took Kane to the next level and has improved countless players that are older. He improves players, that is goal one for a coach and you talk about targets he is hitting all of his coaching targets ahead of schedule. He worked hard with Luke Shaw, Chambers, Ward-Prowse, Sam Gallagher, Isgrove, Clyne etc. He could get away with more youngsters in the team at Southampton because they are a team with midtable expectations. I have no doubt Pochettino will play a young player if they are ready and their attitude is right.

    It is a question of do you want to waste Harry Kane’s prime years at Spurs by risking it with youngsters. I don’t because you get a Harry Kane from your academy once in 40 or 50 years if you are lucky, sure we’ve had Sol Campbell and Ledley King, elite talents come through, but to get a 30 goal a season man out of your academy can’t be squandered.

    Poch hasn’t even done badly bringing through young players at Tottenham and has done more than most in the Top 6.

    Finally you need to realize that its not always the club or managers fault that players from the academy don’t make strides in the game, they have to take more responsibility than they do and by pretending its the man holding them down gives them an excuse an easy out. Sometimes they will be hardly done by for sure but they have to fight through it and force the issue. When i watch Edwards play he has some games where he plays great but hes not forcing it. He has to do more and thats why hes not near the first team, hopefully he will learn.

    • WindyCOYS says:

      I’m not writing this entirely from a position of support of the youth team – I’m writing it from a position of support of the club. The youth players we’re producing now can improve the squad immediately.

      You seem to have inside information about Edwards, so I won’t question that, but everything I’ve been told implies that there’s no longer a problem and hasn’t been for a while. I think it’s absolutely comparable if these players are training in the same environment. They get more leeway, but is that right? I don’t think so. Players need to be held to a standard regardless of name or reputation. Equally, sometimes a good manager should see it from a player’s POV and know when to use carrot and when stick.

      Like you I followed Winks and Onomah for years. I pretty much always loved both, but overall saw Onomah have many more impressive, stand-out games than Winks. Winks’ base level of consistent play was probably higher due to the nature of his role, but Ononah had the higher ceiling. Onomah’s slightly languid style can sometimes make him seem uninterested but I don’t think it was a lack of work ethic. I don’t think we can judge Onomah’s ability to play in midfield on Villa’s current selections, because they’re a mess. Onomah could easily hold his own in our midfield three against APOEL, and most likely others. He should be with our squad still as far as I’m concerned; he’s going backwards.

      I think you’ve slightly missed the point in terms of playing these guys — I’m not saying start them. I’m not saying don’t sign Aurier and instead chuck KWP in. I’m saying give KWP some minutes in ‘easier’ matches and in all matches in the domestic cup competitions. He played left-back against Barnsley (better than nothing but not ideal) as Rose was injured and then nothing against West Ham. If he’d had more minutes in cups last year, he might have been ready to step up and we might not have needed Aurier. We’ll never know now, of course, and I do like Aurier as a player, though he certainly plays ‘on the edge’ as it were.

      I’m absolutely not denying that Pochettino has improved players, that’s one of his major achievements, but it’s not wrong to say he’s only brought one youth player through. Who are the others?

      You ask do I want to ‘risk’ it with youngsters – risk what? Is it a risk to play Edwards against APOEL? Is it a risk to have KWP, Edwards, Sterling on the bench against Stoke to bring them on at 3-0? Why didn’t Foyth come on yesterday to give him some more minutes?

      Let’s not benchmark Poch’s ability to bring through youngsters against others in the top 6 as it becomes a race to the bottom. Nearly all PL clubs are struggling to do this (except perhaps Everton) and it’s a problem that needs addressing.

      I totally realise that it’s not always the club or manager’s fault. Players can cost themselves careers – I *totally* get that. But it’s also not 100% down to the player, and that’s often overlooked. It’s very difficult for players to force the issue if performance after performance after performance leads to nothing. Walker-Peters is a prime example. Way too good for youth level for the last two to three years. Skipp’s going to become another who needs to train with the first team squad sooner rather than later, and the same could be said of Tanganga.

      • Tom Can says:

        Thanks for the Reply.

        Its clear you put a lot of thought into this but I think its a case of just disagreeing. As you have some considerable influence on Spurs fans I hope you are mindful that you don’t make out its all bad and whip people up into a frenzy about the perceived lack of opportunity for the youngsters, I genuinely don’t think its an issue at Tottenham.

        I’m not saying you are giving your opinion from a negative place btw, I appreciate how passionate you are but some of the stuff I read online about how Edwards and other youth players are being stymied and its a disgrace is wrong.

        I think people are overrating the quality of our young players, Walker-Peters is a clever lad and hes smart enough that I think he’ll figure it out but hes off the pace of what is required right now for a top 6 team. They were very kind to him after the Newcastle game.

        Onomah was getting the ‘garbage time’ minutes that you suggest would be helpful over the past few seasons and didnt impress. He really has to buck his ideas up if he wants to take the next step and become a top midfielder or just an average one. Theres nothing wrong with being an average one btw, but he has to fight a lot harder than he does. The reason i compared him to Winks is because when Winks got his opportunities in the first team he took it by demanding the ball, taking it enough tough areas, running hard and making aggressive passes. The opposite of Onomah who was just drifting, you have to do more to be a top player and thats the cold hard reality of it.

        I think the manager wants to keep his first team group engaged at all times, Pochettino very much thinks about things from the Players point of view and their motivation. I believe he is of the opinion that if I don’t give Sissoko his appearance money or minutes then he’ll get disinterested, same with Llorente or Dembele or Whoever. I’m amazed hes kept Llorente as engaged as he has when hes been only getting 10 minutes a game but if he wasn’t getting on then it would be even worse.

        I’m not as ‘high’ on Edwards as most, not even sure he’ll be able to run past players like he does when he transitions into Mens football when they become quicker and stronger.

        I think basically it boils down to the fact that you are overrating our young talent and putting too much of the blame onto Pochettino and its not really fair. We’ve got a great young squad full of British players and the best striker we’ve had in a generation. I think Poch is way more concerned with bringing through players than you think but he feels like we have a chance to get a title at the same time. Its a difficult balancing act.

  • Sweetsman says:

    Excellent posts by Tom Can. You are blinded by your love for the youth squad, Windy. Pochettino’s job is to produce a winning team and boost the squad. We have been pretty green as a team, which is why he has gone for some players. Do you think that the likes of Onomah and Edwards would supersede Sissoko in the French team if they qualified to play for France? Or Aurier for his national team? Pochettino is having to bed these players in; it’s Aurier’s first time in the PL; Llorente had no pre-season and has to make do with fag ends of matches. The club has invested lots of money in these players, so it makes sense to prefer seasoned internationals over youth.

  • Darren Edwards says:

    I’ve read this article and I can honestly say I’m really happy to see there’s people out their that appreciate that Marcus isn’t the person that people make him out to be.Hes qualities as a humble 19 year old who just wants a chance to play for Spurs he just loves the game.If he’s qualities were appreciated and not miss Interpritated and man management took the time to understand this individual then may be things might be different.Anyway like they say a week in football is a long time,meaning anything can happen.Once again much appreciated about the positive and accurate things being said about Marcus.?

  • […] suffered. A bit more luck on that front, and some reinforcements (either new signings or through promoting youth) in key areas would make this viable, but we’re not there […]

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If you want to catch Onomah on his first start for Sheffield Wednesday, they're on Sky's match choice (red button).
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