The Academy as a resource
It was fantastic to see Oliver Skipp make his full Spurs debut against Burnley on Saturday, and the 18-year old — the second 2000-born player to step onto the pitch for Spurs, after Tashan Oakley-Boothe — looked the part; his Academy-ness did not stand out.
As per Dan Kilpatrick’s tweet, Mauricio Pochettino has now given debuts to 13 Academy players since he arrived at Tottenham in May 2014 – let’s look at those 13, and the total minutes they have since had for Spurs.
- Oliver Skipp (2000): 84
- Kyle Walker-Peters (1997): 608
- Luke Amos (1997): 2
- Tashan Oakley-Boothe (2000): 0 (added time sub)
- Kazaiah Sterling (1998): 2
- Anthony Georgiou (1997): 6
- Cameron Carter-Vickers (1997): 360, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Anton Walkes (1997): 10, NB: moved permanently to Portsmouth in July 2018.
- Shayon Harrison (1997): 7
- Marcus Edwards (1998): 15, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Filip Lesniak (1996): 4 NB: moved permanently to AaB in July 2017.
- Joshua Onomah (1997): 807, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Harry Winks (1996): 3998
(Numbers correct as of 16/12/2018)
What we can see from this is that only really five players (Winks, Onomah, Carter-Vickers, Walker-Peters and now Skipp) have had real first team involvement, the rest more token gestures — perhaps as a ‘reward’ for training well, or as a carrot: ‘here’s what you could have’. Given that a number of these players were or are players not expected by most watchers to make the breakthrough to Premier League life permanently, I would suspect that it is a combination of both.
I think it’s fair to assume from this that Pochettino aims to bring through one player from the Academy a season, with Winks the only real success so far in terms of establishing himself, though we hope that after his Barcelona showing and the glowing mentions from his manager since, that Walker-Peters may be the next to become a squad regular.
We should not ignore the fact that Pochettino has established other young players in our first team squad: notably Harry Kane, Dele, Eric Dier, Davinson Sanchez, Juan Foyth, Ryan Mason Nabil Bentaleb. These players were given debuts pre-Pochettino or signed from elsewhere. I personally think that Pochettino prefers using players who have had experience elsewhere, which to me slightly contradicts his loan policy, or certainly the policy he had before he finally sent Onomah, Edwards and Carter-Vickers out.
I would need to take some serious convincing that 1995-born Georges-Kévin N’Koudou is a better footballer than some of the young attacking midfielders that our academy has produced over the past three or four years, but the 4,936 minutes he had racked up for FC Nantes and Olympique Marseille made him worth £11 million. My own view, of course, is that it may have been an idea to ‘try out’ one of our own young wingers first, as that £11 million could have been saved and, indeed, we could have created a player of our own worth a similar amount. Perhaps there were good reasons why Edwards, for example, was not deserving of an opportunity at that time — as fans, we are not privy to all of the information — but alas, part of me wonders what might have been had Edwards been integrated at that point. Two years on and he’s on the bench for Excelsior in the Eredivisie which some fans will tell you categorically confirms that he’s ‘not good enough’.
How are our rivals doing?
Spurs are not particularly behind the curve in terms of giving opportunities to young players, but this should not be a race to the bottom. All Category 1 clubs need to find a way to better bring through their talent, since it is undeniably some of the best young talent in world football.
Indeed, we are lagging behind some rival clubs, most notably Arsenal, who have utilised the Europa League to establish some very exciting players in their squad. They have used Bukayo Saka (2001): 112 minutes, Emile Smith Rowe (2000): 402 minutes, Eddie Nketiah (1999): 180 minutes, Joe Willock (1999): 180 minutes and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (1997): 292 minutes) plus given a handful of minutes to three other young players across cup competitions.
Perhaps Spurs are at a disadvantage compared to Arsenal with regard to opportunity. Their being in the Europa League gave them a series of ‘easier’ matches where the risk was lower. They could afford to play two or three youngsters knowing that they should still safely win the match.
The ‘risk’ element of blooding a youngster will not have been helped in the eyes of Spurs fans and possibly coaching staff by Walker-Peters’ unfortunate early error against Barcelona or by Juan Foyth’s handful of errors in otherwise highly promising displays.
That said, I cannot remember too many high-profile errors by young players in matches. Bentaleb made a couple in his early showings; I vaguely remember a square ball across the box vs Manchester United but could be wrong. I also remember a large number of high-profile errors made by more established players this season alone. Kieron Trippier has been guilty of several, Serge Aurier and Moussa Sissoko spent a lot of last season making errors which could have cost us. Obviously the idea is to minimise risk, but all players are capable of errors, regardless of age, ability or experience. Less experienced players making more errors may be true, but I also think it’s exaggerated.
Jesus Perez claimed in this wonderful interview with Alasdair Gold that young players making mistakes is not an issue to Pochettino and, instead, their progress is dependent on being accepted by other first team players:
“Mauricio got his chance when he was 16 or 17 at Newell’s Old Boys and that is always in his mind. No one has to explain to him what it means to give a chance.
Mauricio is not the person who says ‘It goes there, this is good, play’, he’s more like ‘let’s see what he’s like training for two or three months with the first team and see if he’s good enough’. Then once the first team accept this guy is good he plays.
Then you can fail, it’s not a problem. Mistakes with Mauricio are not a problem, if you behave properly, if you want it and you try and your will is good. That’s why he improves a lot of players.
He doesn’t teach players. He proposes to the player a scenario, a platform to improve. If they take it they will improve. It’s just practising and having the backing of your manager. That’s how you improve.”
English football needs to change its collective mindset towards giving young players an opportunity. How good should a young player have to be before they are given matches? Should they be better than their positional rival before even getting a few minutes? Is that a realistic aim? Can we expect young players to improve *without* opportunity within a fully-functioning team?
Let’s use the Academy
And now we come to the central part of my argument – forgive me, I’m an amateur. We should use young players more – they are a valuable resource which can help keep our first teamers fresh. And they allow us to better manage the ‘homegrown’ requirement within the squad. Exposure to the first team squad creates value, and so even if they are deemed to not be at the required standard for Spurs, we can then sell them on for huge profit, as we have with Nabil Bentaleb, Jake Livermore, Steven Caulker, Andros Townsend, Ryan Mason, etc etc.
Typically at Spurs young players get opportunities when there is an injury crisis. This was true of Harry Kane and this season it has been true of Foyth, Walker-Peters and Skipp. This means that they are often thrown into a sink or swim scenario with very little preparation or thoughtful integration. Better would be to do what we did really well with Winks; we had him on the bench and brought him on at key points of games, slowly integrating him, before giving him starts as a rotation. This approach allows the player to build confidence and also allow first-timers the time off that they need to recover properly between matches. Given how many players we have in our squad with chronic injuries, this seems to be a no-brainer.
Putting a number on it
Currently in our Academy we have 10 first years and 16 second years. Typically over the past ten years, around two or three from each group have been players identified as potentially good enough for first team football in the Premier League — let’s generously say 20% of our Academy players *might* have ended up integrated into first team training previously. Of course, there are exceptions – e.g. the 1991/1992 group featuring Andros Townsend, Steven Caulker, Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll, Adam Smith, etc; Alex Pritchard and Harry Kane were often playing ‘up’ in this group too.
This season’s Under-18s are some of our best yet. They might just be the best group of young players our Academy has produced, though it’s too early to say for sure. That 20% figure may need to be revised, as I think as many as 40% of these 26 players could be first team training contenders (that’s around 10), and from there – who knows?
What could we change?
I’ve had a fair few discussions on Twitter over the past eighteen months around whether we trust that Pochettino is doing the right thing with the way he manages the integration of youth players. Pochettino is — quite rightly — adored, and it is assumed that he is right about everything. He’s right about most things, I agree. Fans believe that if a young player doesn’t play it is because he is not good enough technically, not good enough mentally, or not good enough physically. Or that he’s not been knuckling down in training or has the age old ‘attitude problem’.
My own belief is that we wait until players are 100% ready in all aspects then we will lose more quality young players in the same way that we have lost Keanan Bennetts and Reo Griffiths (and Milos Veljkovic before them). I think there is a middle ground, and it involves a few more bench places and opportunities across the season.
To me, this makes total sense. It would be absolutely crazy to be adding three or four untested players to our match-day squad at one time, but dipping three or four players in across a season feels entirely reasonable. 800 minutes (9 matches) split four ways feels like a realistic target.
If we’re not going to do this, though, it is absolutely essential that we start getting players out on loan. Walker-Peters has had two years with barely any football; I fail to see how this has helped him. Were it not for this latest injury crisis, Skipp could have ended up in the same boat. We need to be identifying good loan clubs and letting our young players go out and get minutes and try to impress. For example, I strongly believe that Jack Roles would gain so much more on-loan at a League One club (a team trying to play football like Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers, for instance) than playing Under-23 football in the PL2.
Hand being forced
With Eric Dier’s latest setback, and the ongoing injuries to Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama, Pochettino has had his hand forced, somewhat, and we can probably expect to see Skipp get plenty of minutes over Christmas. We might also, therefore, see another young midfielder included on the bench since there’s little other midfield back-up throughout the squad (unless he tries to convert Juan Foyth to a defensive midfielder).
I expect 1998-born George Marsh is the most likely, but my personal preference would be for one of the 2001-born central midfielders Jamie Bowden or Harvey White to be the ones elevated ahead of time. Both show enormous potential and, in my opinion, have a greater chance of making it as Premier League players than Marsh in the long-term. Indeed, one must really feel for Luke Amos in this situation: he was in a great position at the start of the season to get some really decent minutes, and then sustained an injury which will keep him out for the entire 2018/19 campaign. Heck, Josh Onomah might finally be getting games for Spurs in his favoured position were he not on-loan at Wednesday, being savaged by their ‘on the brink’ manager.
Spurs aren’t doing a horrible job of bringing young players through, but there’s room for improvement, and the summer showed that, unless we change, we will lose good players from our set-up. We have had a few ‘less productive’ years in terms of talent coming out of the Academy, but we now have a glut of quality players, and we can but hope that a good number of them ultimately become first team squad players, saving us a fortune in the process.