January 4, 2019

Flatliners

I’ve read two really interesting articles this week that I’d like to share and comment on:

Both are excellent pieces that raise interesting questions.

There is one line in Dan’s piece that I took issue with and rather than try to articulate a point in 280 characters on Twitter, I thought I’d write a response which I hope can be read alongside Dan’s article rather than seen as an antagonistic repost. That line: ‘There is not a single youngster who has left Spurs under the Argentine which the club have lived to regret.’

Before I come to my main point, I personally believe that Miloš Veljković, sold to Werder Bremen for €300,000 two years ago, would have been a very useful asset this season (and last). He’s a starting centre-back in a mid-table Bundesliga team. And also, we could come to regret letting Keanan Bennetts, Reo Griffiths and Noni Madueke leave.

But more importantly, this comment on Pochettino having no regrets assumes that players would not have continued an upward trajectory had they been given an opportunity, rather than stagnating or even beginning a decline, which we have seen in a number of young players. For example, it assumes that Nathan Oduwa, currently without a club having been at Olimpija Ljubljana and Vejle Boldklub (thus many will scoff at my suggestion), could never have made it under any circumstance. Personally, I believe that if the stars had aligned he could have. I would say the same for Connor Ogilvie, now on loan at Gillingham, and others would say the same for Alex Pritchard, now at Huddersfield. In the same way that we maxed out the abilities of the likes of Anton Walkes and Grant Ward and ultimately got them to a level that many youth-watchers would not have anticipated, we failed to max out those of Oduwa, Ogilvie and many others. That’s not to say that I believe that every youth player has a chance of making it at Spurs; there are and have been many, many players in Spurs’ Academy system for whom it clearly is not feasible to be a Premier League footballer (though they might develop or go backwards, of course). Despite huge investment in the Academy over the past decade it is clear that the vast majority of players will not have the credentials post-scholarship; that’s normal.

Josh Onomah, referenced in Dan’s article and who I mentioned in this recent article, is in danger of becoming the next in line to leave Spurs; I would imagine that he will move on over the course of the next 12 months. Onomah is a natural talent that — in my opinion — the club have allowed to stagnate. Myself and others felt he was better than Winks (who was also excellent) in U18/U19/U21/U23 football and if he had had the same opportunities in the same position I believe he would be where Winks is now or perhaps even ahead of where he is now. Others disagree, but I am certainly not alone in my thinking. Perhaps — as Dan alludes to — he did not show the same ‘character’ as Winks in training and so did not get the same opportunities. And so we are back to the age old youth development question: what comes first, the opportunity or the taking of the opportunity? There has to be a balance between carrot and stick.

If Onomah now goes on to play for, say, Bristol City, casual onlookers will say ‘clearly he wasn’t good enough for Spurs’, which I personally believe misses the point that player development is not linear, as the brilliant article from Chelsea Youth explains so neatly.

Various managers/coaches across the Tottenham and England age groups all assessed Onomah’s technical ability and mental attributes and decided that he was worth investing time and energy into; would they have done that if he were not up to it, or a player with a poor mentality? Would Mauricio Pochettino himself have said in 2015 ”He is a special boy, a special player, because of his talent, his potential and his body’ if he ultimately thought that Onomah had an attitude problem and would end up being sold to a Championship team? Pochettino thought Onomah was ‘special’, destined to be a top quality player.

Onomah has been with Spurs since playing in the Under-9s. Taking into account his ability and personality, which he had demonstrated to the club for over a decade, Pochettino and his staff gave Onomah multiple new contracts and felt that he was ‘special’.

If he leaves, and onlookers decide that that must be because he was never good enough, then do they question Pochettino’s judgement? He’s the one that deemed Josh special. Or, more sensibly, do they question how that player (because this isn’t really about Josh Onomah specifically) has been developed? Onomah hasn’t suddenly become a different person after ten years, so knowing his personality, his character through years of working with him, developing him as a player and a person, what did the club/coaches do to continue his development to ensure that a decade of time and resources were not wasted? The point I’m making is that something’s gone wrong, and it’s too easy to always blame the player.

In many ways, keeping players’ development moving in an upward trajectory — with no downward turns or levelling out — is the biggest problem Spurs and other English clubs have faced in post-Under-18 football. We have a failing Under-23 structure (in my admittedly-only-partially-informed opinion) and Spurs specifically have not got anyone overseeing a loan system as we once had under Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand (for all their failings, they did that well). We’ve seen the same stagnation with Marcus Edwards, Kazaiah Sterling, Japhet Tanganga, Luke Amos, even Kyle Walker-Peters. I hope the same does not happen with others: Sam Shashoua apparently arranged a loan off his own back and is excelling in Spain, which I hope kick-starts his progression. I could go on and on listing players who have flat-lined. These players have one thing in common: they came out of Under-18 football very highly rated, being selected in England youth squads, and they have ultimately stopped progressing.

It’s so easy for fans who want to believe that the club is doing everything right to put the blame for that on the player: they didn’t stand out in training, they didn’t stand out in that cup match they played in once, they had the wrong attitude, they thought they’d made it, too much too young, money is ruining the game. But young players going abroad and showing their quality tells us that the clubs are failing to adapt. Something has to change within the structure to allow opportunity, to allow growth, to forgive the failings of youth players like we do with more experienced professionals who have cost clubs multiple millions.

Clubs and coaches have to remember that each player is different and each needs a different strategy. Trying to develop Marcus Edwards — a natural technician who needs extra challenges, extra incentives, extra pushes — in the same way that you treat Harry Winks — who is a little more limited and so who obviously has to work his backside off to maximise his abilities, thus shows ‘character’ — is a recipe for failure.

Ultimately, I think if Onomah moves on, he’ll eventually find his way back to the top half of the Premier League because he’s a very good footballer. But with the odds stacked against young players, nobody can really know how this will end.

Pochettino has rightly earned praise for developing a whole host of players at Spurs and for bringing through Harry Winks. He now seems to want to integrate Oliver Skipp and Kyle Walker-Peters, which is fantastic. But English clubs in general have a long way to go in terms of maximising the huge potential within its Academy system. And in order to do that, they and we need to start looking within club structures and strategies, and stop always looking to blame the players.

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15 Jan 2019