Things feel okay again.
I didn’t like last season. I didn’t like the way things quickly went south under my beloved Mauricio Pochettino. I didn’t even like much of the football post-restart (I understand I’m potentially in the minority there). I didn’t like our players and manager breaking lockdown, Dele making a racially insensitive joke on Instagram, the emerging tension around Tanguy Ndombele… if we were going to skip a ‘season review DVD’, 2019/20 is definitely the one.
But I really fucking loved watching Tottenham Hotspur vs Ipswich Town in a pre-season friendly on August 22nd 2020.
It’s a pre-season friendly. It means nothing. We were playing a League One club who changed their full XI at half-time. Caveats all over the shop, and rightly so. But I felt hopeful and excited and – simply put – I just enjoyed watching us play football.
José Mourinho is many things, and his autocratic style and his communication methods are probably never going to sit comfortably with me, but there are two elements of his tenure that I am thoroughly enjoying so far.
- The common sense approach to transfers.
- The way that he is developing our young players.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is not a special player. He’s not Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso. But I believe he’s potentially the No More Nails that our team has lacked. He’s the guy that puts out fires, that anticipates and that allows the others to express themselves. He’s very neat and tidy technically (and I definitely don’t want to under-sell this), very vocal, a good organiser and an excellent reader of the game. No frills but… we’ve got plenty of frills, so that’s okay.
And whilst I don’t believe that he’s a special player, he might well be a special person. I would really recommend listening to this interview. He’s highly intelligent, articulate and most importantly – I think – reflective.
Joe Hart has not been a good goalkeeper for a few years now. The data shows us this pretty clearly. But if Mourinho feels that he needs another experienced goalkeeper then I am simply pleased that he has been backed in this way. I’d rather we’d have trawled data and scouted more widely and found a younger, ‘bigger upside’ goalkeeper who could potentially go on to become first or second choice, but perhaps the club think they have that in Brandon Austin and Alfie Whiteman, and want to give them two years to prove themselves on loan. This signing was just ‘fine’ for me.
Just as excitingly as Højbjerg’s signing, I believe, are the loan moves for Troy Parrott (Millwall) and Oliver Skipp (Norwich City). I wanted Parrott to go out on loan last January, and I wanted Skipp to go out for the whole of last season. But Mourinho seems to have totally ripped up our previous loan policy and has set about making up for lost time. I think these moves bode really well. I predict that Parrott will score 15+ goals in the Championship and that both Skipp will make pundits’ Championship teams of the season. This is exactly what they both needed. They are excellent young players with the highest of high ceilings.
We seem to also be close to selling Serge Aurier. This gives me enormous faith. We’re being linked with right-backs and strikers, positions of need. It all just makes sense.
Developing young players
I’ve watched two Spurs matches in the past seven days: the Under-23s at Leyton Orient, and the first team against Ipswich town.
I’ll start with the first team as that’s the most pertinent. With many regulars not yet back from their holidays (or back, but quarantining) it opened the door for plenty of involvement from youth players, and Mourinho certainly doubled down in that regard. We ended the match with an insanely young side. In positional order: 28; 21, 22, 31, 18; 18, 16; 19, 19, 20; 16.
I think we all expected to see Dennis Cirkin and Harvey White involved – two players who have caught Mourinho’s eye and who have been in squads previously. When I got wind earlier in the week that we might see some 16-year olds included, though, I got very excited because this is new. Not only is it a show of faith in those players – Dane Scarlett and Alfie Devine (who recently joined from Wigan), both of whom are England Under-16 players (in a very, very competitive age group) – but, just as importantly, it’s a statement. And that’s what’s been missing these past three years. That’s the reason why we haemorrhaged young talent and will now rue the loss of many a player, but especially Noni Madueke, Omari Forson and Luis Binks. The youngsters need to see a pathway because there is an increasingly well-trodden alternative – go abroad and get the opportunities you won’t necessarily get in the Premier League.
None of the young players who were involved yesterday looked out of place. I think Harvey White, Ryan Sessegnon and Jack Clarke could and should play all of the early Europa League matches. I think Dennis Cirkin should be our left-back rotation full stop (he’s ideal for that withdrawn role). I suspect Cameron Carter-Vickers will leave permanently and I believe the club are looking for the right club to loan Jamie Bowden to.
It’s far too early to make proclamations about the futures of Dane Scarlett and Alfie Devine, but I liked what I saw…
And, frankly, if you don’t long to be in Alfie Devine’s crew, are you even Spurs?
The Under-23s were less convincing in their heavy defeat to Leyton Orient (though roughly the same group did draw with Crawley Town yesterday). The Orient match neatly encapsulated the damage that we’ve done to our youth development over the past few years. There were players playing in that match that ultimately have no place in a Spurs Under-23 team at this point (it’s not good for them or us); they should have moved on permanently by now and opened the door for some younger boys to get chances in their place.
This summer is going to be quite ‘shop windowy’ for some of these guys, both in terms of loans and permanent transfers. Jack Roles is the one who can probably think himself a bit unfortunate not to be in the first team group, but he will hopefully get a decent loan to a Championship club (Wycombe Wanderers would be ideal) and that could be transformative for him. I’m not convinced that he’s a future Spurs player yet but he’s certainly very talented and has a good career ahead of him. Goal-scoring midfielders have real value and, if he’s not going to make it with us, we need to absolutely maximise that value.
To finish, I think it’s worth noting that the match against Ipswich was exactly what we have come to expect under Mourinho. That is:
- Low block and counter. We defend deep and narrow, we crowd the box, we allow the opposition to have the ball at arm’s length, we wait for them to make an error and then we pounce and attack with pace. It’s not what I want to see from Spurs in the long-term but, for now, it’s effective.
- Out-to-in movement from wide. Part of that attacking with pace comes from wide players driving inside in a very direct way. They tend not to hold the wide position to open the pitch – we don’t play possession football, so that’s not necessarily needed. Instead, they are constantly looking to time runs in behind. Sessegnon’s goal showed this – a run inside to get onto a long-range pass from Dele. Son’s second showed defence-stretching movement but down the centre. Mourinho loves Lucas for this and for his work-rate, though I personally think Lucas’ poor decision-making and lack of productivity mark him out as a poor fit long-term. I think Clarke and Sessegnon are more than capable of performing this role – Clarke was quite productive yesterday in terms of chance creation. He’s incredibly good at fronting up his man, beating him and getting a pass or cut-back into the box.
- 4-4-2 out of possession, 3-4-3 in it. As we saw very often last season, the left-back tucks in to create a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 shape when we are building from the back, allowing the right-back (in this instance, Gedson, who had a strong game) to push forward. At this point it seems to be the approach we will continue with rather than simply a solution to ‘The Aurier Problem’. Though, of course, that might change if we sign a new right-back.
So yes, here I am enjoying Spurs again. Long may it continue!
Whilst I’m here I’ll tell you about a new project that I’m involved in. Myself and Flav from The Fighting Cock podcast have started a non-football pod called 15 Minutes (With Flav and Windy). It’s a coffee break podcast, give it a go.