May 18, 2018

Consolidation

This has been a season of consolidation. In the league we’ve finished higher than expected. Pre-season predictions generally suggested that Spurs would finish anywhere from 4th – 6th, particularly given the Wembley factor. The cups were, yet again, a case of what might have been. The League Cup exit to West Ham — having been 2-0 up — was one of the low points of the season. The FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United felt painfully inevitable. And the Champions League exit to Juventus came on a day where expectations were relatively low, but was a bitter pill to swallow because the match had been going so well. The Champions League campaign on the whole was one of which we can be proud; some historic moments, some wonderful atmospheres, and Harry Winks’ coming of age at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

Mauricio Pochettino has, yet again, overseen improvements in individual players to levels not previously thought possible. I’m particularly looking at Ben Davies, who has come on significantly. Previously thought a mediocre back-up, Davies is now an important squad member who has made 38 appearances in all competitions, scoring twice and getting six assists too.

Other than Davies, we’ve seen big improvements elsewhere, even from players who were previously already established. Christian Eriksen has gone up another notch, and is now arguably, along with Harry Kane, our best player. I voted for him as Player of the Season, such is his importance, his influence. When he’s not there, we are infinitely slower and less able to create. He could play for any club in the world, and I would personally be making him captain or vice-captain (I do like a captain in the middle of the pitch…) in an attempt to convince him to stick around longer.

Son Heung-min has become near enough elite. He managed 18 goals and 11 assists in 53 appearances in all competitions, at a rate of a goal or assist every 116.5 minutes, which is quite brilliant. He showed his versatility again too, playing from the left, from the right and through the middle, covering for Kane when necessary. Next season we need to learn when to take him out and give him a breather, as he seemed totally exhausted by the season’s end, though finishing the season with an injury didn’t help.

Jan Vertonghen has been immense. With Toby Alderweireld absent for long periods, we have been somewhat reliant on Vertonghen to marshal our defence, nurturing new boy Davinson Sanchez in the process. Sanchez’s first season has been unbelievably impressive — he is a mega-talent — and I am sure that he would say that the reliability and quality of Vertonghen alongside him has been a great help and has allowed him to bed in smoothly. Vertonghen has always been a lovely player; his quality on the ball often out-shone his defending in his early years at Spurs. But he has become more robust over time, his decision-making is 99% perfect, and he still steps out from defence like few other players in the Premier League, swaggering forward in a fashion that says ‘I could play anywhere, but I choose to play at the back’. I did notice towards the end of the season that Vertonghen started to look a little creaky on the turn when we played a particularly high line, and I wonder if — at the ripe old age of 31 (lol) — we may find that he needs our back line to start a few yards deeper over time.

Mauricio Pochettino’s post-season comments regarding the direction of travel at the club were fascinating, two comments stood out in particular:

“I think it’s a moment where the club needs to take risks and try to work, if possible, harder than the previous season to be competitive again because every season will be worse and will be more difficult.”

And:

“I think after four years we need to assess this period and if we want to play and be really contenders for big, big trophies, I think we need to review a little bit. It’s fantastic today all that we achieved, but it will be so important to create again, assess all that has happened and create a different, not project, but add different ideas to help the club to move on and be closer to winning titles in the next few years.”

I think there are two key points to take from this. Firstly, Pochettino is clearly urging Levy to take a slight change in approach, to be a little less risk-averse. And secondly, and possibly more specifically, to make some fairly significant changes to the squad.

It is likely that there will be a number of players leaving the club in the summer, most notably Toby Alderweireld. I foolishly convinced myself that the ITK was true and that there were some off-pitch issues surrounding him not playing, but it seems clear that he will leave in the hunt for trophies and market-value wages. Danny Rose may have back-tracked on his comments of last summer, but I wonder whether that’s mainly because his stock has fallen somewhat. In hindsight we should have sold him at his peak value, and we may end up hanging onto him despite everything — I cannot see why we would sell to Everton, who seem to be the only interested party now. Mousa Dembélé’s body has finally given up on him and, after years of carefully managing his schedule to maximise him, his performances have begun to dip. He had some real highs this season — particularly in Europe — but he had several really rough games too, and he now seems destined to move to China. He’s approaching 31, but I would say that he’s an ‘old’ 31 due to his niggling hip injuries, so I don’t begrudge him moving for that one last, big pay-day. One would have to imagine that Fernando Llorente, Moussa Sissoko and Vincent Janssen will all leave, and all have to be seen as transfer failures. I cannot see that we would recoup anything like what we paid, but between them they will be on big money, and that saving will be useful.

That is five or six players and all would probably need replacing in some way, adding up to arguably more major surgery than we have done under Pochettino than at any point other than his first season, so his comments were particularly timely.

We have another area of weakness which would be fairly easy to upgrade, but it’s problematic. Kieran Trippier is a good, solid player who has a skill set which is not suited to the way that we play. He is all about holding his position in the opposition half, receiving the ball and delivering early crosses for onrushing players. Crossing is an incredibly inefficient way of scoring goals, and our style requires someone who is able to carry the ball forward at pace, get his 10-20 yards up the pitch, and then ether hit the byline and play cut-backs, or lay the ball off for our attacking midfielders to probe centrally; i.e. exactly what Kyle Walker was so good at. Serge Aurier shows signs of having some potential to do elements of this, but there remain concerns over his rashness in defence, and his ability to beat a man. Certainly he is more agile and dynamic than Trippier, able to shift his weight more quickly and launch us from defence into attack more naturally, but he will require a lot of moulding from Pochettino to become a success. Then we have Kyle Walker-Peters. Two Premier League matches, two Man of the Match awards. If I’d had my way, he would have been fully integrated over the past two years and we might not have needed to sign Aurier, but we are where we are. Walker-Peters has all the balance and dribbling ability to be a success, plus the recovery pace to allow him to play further forward. In my opinion he is a far more natural fit for our 3-4-3 than either of the alternatives. We have been at our very best under Pochettino with two high quality, in-form wing-backs and, as such, my personal preference would be to sell Trippier (who is approaching 28) *and* Aurier (who I think will require rather a lot of fine-tuning), to sign a high calibre right-back (I rather fancied Porto’s Ricardo Pereira, but it seems that Leicester have got in there first), and to use Walker-Peters as rotation. My gut feel is that we will start the season with all three of our current right-backs, and I just hope that Walker-Peters has the opportunities to make the position his own.

Normally a club will go into the summer with a couple of key areas to strengthen, but this time around we will likely require reinforcements in almost every area of the pitch, and that includes goalkeeper with Michel Vorm coming to the end of his contract and expected to move on. Some of these squad spaces could be filled by young players *prepares self for rant*.

Spurs have sold Keanan Bennetts to Borussia Mönchengladbach this week, amidst talk that Reo Griffiths — scorer of 32 goals in the Under-18 league this season, twice as many as anyone else — may also move on, and may also move abroad. The loss of Bennetts and potential loss of Griffiths follows a trend of us selling talented young players to German clubs – Milos Velkovic, Ismail Azzaoui and, of course, Nabil Bentaleb all followed that course. Bentaleb would likely get in our current matchday squad. Veljkovic is going to be a high-class centre-back. Azzaoui has been unfortunate with injuries but has played 1000 minutes this season and is going to be worth a fair bit in the future. Veljkovic in particular is an interesting one, and his situation seemed to pre-empt what’s happening now. He wanted assurances that eventually he’d get first team football, but Spurs wouldn’t give him those until he signed a contract. The stand-off intensified and he joined Werder Bremen for a token gesture fee in February 2016. He will be in the Serbia squad for the World Cup. He’s a ball-playing centre-back who would have been ideal for us in the long-term, but we would not compromise.

Had Bennetts been on the bench for a couple of League Cup matches earlier in the season he’d probably feel integrated and like he wanted to stick around. Heck, he could have been used at left wing-back when Walker-Peters (a very right-footed full-back) was having to fill in there — he’s certainly physically ready, and he has the pace to scare opposition defenders. Had he played, he’d have suddenly been worth £3/4/5m and, had he done well he’d have been worth double that, perhaps more. Not all youth players are going to become first team players but we should maximise profit. So even from the ‘our Academy players aren’t good enough for the first team’ perspective, it’s worth giving them *some* minutes just to add value. Ultimately he’s a player that will likely be worth multiple millions one day, so even if you don’t think he’ll be first team material, we could have at least built his value up with strategic first team involvement and loans.

Spurs losing young players is not confined to scholars and above — last season we lost Nya Kirby to Crystal Palace at 16, and this year it seems Noni Madueke will be joining Manchester United as a scholar. These two are big talents and, whilst it’s not unusual for 16-year olds to change clubs before their scholarships, it does make you wonder why potential stars would leave our wonderful training centre, and the lack of progression opportunities may be one reason.

As a whole, Premier League teams are failing to bring through talented young players (England are strong across the board from Under-16 to Under-21), instead choosing to spend millions on (often sub-standard) players from abroad. German clubs have now identified that within English academies there’s an untapped pool of top class technical talent, available cheaply and willing to move for first team football.

We’ve seen players like Ademola Lookman, Reece Oxford, Jadon Sancho make the move, and they are rumoured to soon be followed by Rhian Brewster, and now Bennetts and potentially Griffiths. If I was a Sporting Director at a European club I’d be all over the English market, there’s so much talent — and it’s a money-ball dream because all they need is opportunity and suddenly they’re worth a fortune!

Spurs need to develop a coherent plan for bringing players from Academy to first team, as that is currently failing. We’ve built an incredible training complex, have elite coaches at various age groups, and are producing excellent Under-18 players (the team finished 4th this season behind some very good sides). But it seems to stop after that, and there’s a lot of work to do with the Under-23s, with the loans, and with the link to the first team. Let’s hope that next season we can develop a plan for bringing young players through to our first team squad to back-fill, save us some money, and to hopefully develop the next Kane, Winks or Walker-Peters.

So onto next season. If this season has been one of consolidation, next season appears set up to be one of transition. We will likely have a number of key positions to fill and will also have a reduced pre-season due to the World Cup hampering preparations. We will have our third home stadium in as many years and so new routines, a new pitch and a new atmosphere. Pochettino will, more than ever, have to get a new group up to speed efficiently, and will be reliant on some of his key players to carry the weight initially. We could do without Harry Kane blanking in August, for example, and we could also do without too many coming back from the World Cup with burn-out.

This is possibly Pochettino’s biggest challenge yet, and he will be judged by the summer transfer business, since he now has more control at the club.

Looking at his transfer business to date (below – taken from the legendary Topspurs), I would suggest, perhaps generously, that there are eight hits, eight misses, and six maybes. That ratio could do with tweaking, and I think that explains his recent comments about a change of approach.

2017/18 Lucas Moura Paris Saint-Germain Jan-18 £25,000,000
2017/18 Fernando Llorente Swansea City Aug-17 £12,000,000
2017/18 Serge Aurier Paris Saint-Germain Aug-17 £23,000,000
2017/18 Juan Forth Estudiantes Aug-17 £8,000,000
2017/18 Davinson Sanchez Ajax Amsterdam Aug-17 £42,000,000
2017/18 Paulo Gazzaniga Southampton Aug-17 Undisclosed
2016/17 Moussa Sissoko Newcastle Aug-16 £30,000,000
2016/17 Georges-Kévin N’Koudou Marseille Aug-16 Undisclosed
2016/17 Vincent Janssen AZ Alkmaar Jul-16 £17,000,000
2016/17 Victor Wanyama Southampton Jun-16 £11,000,000
2015/16 Son Heung-min Bayer Leverkusen Aug-15 £22,000,000
2015/16 Toby Alderweireld Atlético Madrid Jul-15 £11,500,000
2015/16 Clinton N’Jie Olympique Lyonnais Aug-15 £8,300,000
2015/16 Kieran Trippier Burnley Jun-15 £3,500,000
2015/16 Kevin Wimmer FC Köln Jun-15 £4,300,000
2014/15 Dele Alli Milton Keys Dons Feb-15 £5,000,000
2014/15 Benjamin Stambouli Montpellier Aug-14 £4,700,000
2014/15 Federico Fazio Seville Aug-14 £8,000,000
2014/15 DeAndre Yedlin Seattle Sounders Aug-14 £2,500,000
2014/15 Eric Dier Sporting Lisbon Jul-14 £4,000,000
2014/15 Ben Davies Swansea City Jul-14 Part-Ex
2014/15 Michel Vorm Swansea City Jul-14 £5,000,000

As ever, fans will be desperate for a cup triumph, and perhaps some lessons will have been learned this year, though frankly I feel as though I’ve said that before. The team selection against Manchester United — with Alderweireld and Lloris on the bench — was certainly questionable.

We have some major surgery to do this summer, but the potential is great, with some wonderful players throughout the spine of our team. Do this right, and we can challenge on all fronts. Get it wrong, and we could find ourselves taking a backwards step.

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March 8, 2018

Out foxed by Allegri or just unlucky?

Having completed so much of the hard work on Wednesday night, Spurs were sadly unable to see out a tie which we largely dominated across two legs. Ultimately we had 23 minutes to see out, but our wily opponents out foxed us and did enough to scrape through – which you could say is somewhat typical of them.

Juventus’ tactical switch on 60 minutes arguably made all the difference. Kwadwo Asamoah came on for Blaise Matuidi, with Juventus switching to a back four and Alex Sandro suddenly having greater support on the left. Max Allegri perhaps got slightly fortuitous with the next change moments later – his hand was somewhat forced with Medhi Benatia’s injury, but rather than bringing on Daniele Rugani to replace him like-for-like as a centre-back, he brought on veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner to play as an attacking right-back, shifting 36-year old Andrea Barzagli inside. The shape change created their first goal — and arguably their second.

Juventus goal - 1

Juventus goal – 1

Lichtsteiner had been on the pitch a matter of moments when he burst forward to support a Juve attack, immediately giving Ben Davies a problem with an overload on our left.

Juventus goal - 2

Juventus goal – 2

Davies did not have any real support and Lichtsteiner was easily able to get down the line and put a cross in.

Juventus goal - 3

Juventus goal – 3

The cross came in, Davinson Sanchez spotted Sami Khedira but couldn’t challenge him in time, and he flicked the ball on intelligently.

Juventus goal - 4

Juventus goal – 4

Neither Kieran Trippier nor Christian Eriksen followed Gonzalo Higuaín and he was left with a tap-in at the back post.

Spurs had seven defenders against four attackers in the box, and so to concede in this manner was disappointing – we can be vulnerable from crosses due to similar disorganisation, and it is one area where we could tighten up. When you play with attacking full-backs, covering at the back post is not easy, but this goal was very preventable.

Pochettino didn’t react to the tactical/personnel changes when they happened, but nor did he/we sort ourselves out from the restart. With Spurs’ back four suddenly having to be very wary of Juventus’ increased wide threat and, therefore, spread across the pitch and vulnerable, Juventus mounted their next attack through the middle.

Juventus second goal - 1

Juventus second goal – 1

Ben Davies had dropped deeper due to the threat of the pace of Douglas Costa and added support from Lichtsteiner. The back line was suddenly not playing ‘as one’. Despite that, when Davinson Sanchez moved forward to press the ball, Trippier needed to cover round, tuck in, and stay with the forward.

Juventus second goal - 2

Juventus second goal – 2

With Trippier caught in two minds he failed to track Paulo Dybala. Instead, he tried to play offside, allowing Dybala to run through unchallenged: he finished the move beautifully.

On the night, Allegri outdid Pochettino in these few key moments. He largely kept things tight (though Harry Kane did make a mug of Giorgio Chiellini for his big chance, and it could have been so different had that landed the other side of the post), restricting Mousa Dembélé with the extra body in midfield, and was able to turn the screw when it mattered, switching shape and adding additional support in wide areas through Asamoah and Lichtsteiner.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Pochettino used to use Harry Winks as a player to come on and close out matches. Even without Winks on the bench, could we have brought Wanyama on when that first goal went in to steady the ship and try to try to keep the ball for a few minutes? A midfield three might well have been able to prevent that second goal.

There is nobody in world football that I would want more than Pochettino as our manager right now, and this criticism is not meant as a definitive statement of Pochettino’s failure. In fact, this Champions League campaign can absolutely be seen as a great success, as we have punched above our weight throughout. Our approach across these two games was highly impressive, and this was never an easy tie. We were playing against some elite players with decades of experience and honours to go with it, and yet we played with energy, fluidity and were easy on the eye.

Ultimately what was lacking was a bit of nous at key moments to reorganise, adjust, and to hunker down when needed. Pochettino will have learnt bundles from this match, as will our players, and hopefully it will stand us in good stead should we qualify for the Champions League again next year.

Also:

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January 14, 2018

Post-Everton Thoughts

Yesterday’s 4-0 win over Everton was one of my favourite Spurs performances of the season. Everton look a far more competent unit under Sam Allardyce and, whilst they had not won in five matches coming into this match, three of those were against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, so expectations will have been fairly low anyway.

We played with an attacking verve and defensive solidarity – at Wembley – which was a joy to see. Our attacking impetus was led by Son Heung-min, who put in a masterclass of how to play the wide-forward role.

Son’s often mentioned solely in terms of stereotypes of Korean footballers, and I’ve been guilty of doing this myself – he *is* hard-working, he *does* attack his full-back relentlessly, but he’s so much more; so technical, so intelligent. His out-to-in movement for the first goal to drag Cuco Martina inside to leave Serge Aurier free to receive Eriksen’s fabulous switch of play in space was subtle, creative brilliance.

Son's movement inside 1

Son goal – movement inside

Son's movement inside 2

Son goal – dragging Martina away

On that note, Aurier ran forward untracked by Gylfi Sigurdsson over and over, and was a hugely positive outlet.

In their BT commentary, Darren Fletcher and Glenn Hoddle repeatedly mentioned the two-footedness of Kane and Son, and it’s such an advantage to have two players willing to use both feet to dribble, pass and shoot. But let’s not forget Eriksen, who is arguably one of the most two-footed players in our team. When Eriksen moved to play mostly on the right I was concerned about him cutting in onto his left foot, but since making that move he has become more consistent, more influential, and more mature as a player. That may be coincidental, but the pocket of space suits him.

Spurs player PL shots by body part

Spurs’ Premier League shots by body part

Spurs player PL goals by body part

Spurs’ Premier League goals by body part

One player who does struggle to use two feet – backed up both by the above, and his fairly awful left-footed shot when clear in yesterday’s match – is Dele.

Dele has been in sparkling form over the past month, but he can suffer from being a little one-footed and could learn something from his attacking colleagues’ willingness to use their weaker side.

Spurs’ front four were masterfully backed up by Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé behind them. This was probably Dembélé’s best game of the season and he looked somewhere close to his best form, wriggling away from challenges as if he were five years younger. The big difference, though, was his aggressiveness with the ball – he passed forward a decent amount (38/66 passes) but also ran forward and committed players. He set Kane away for a shot with a clever slide-rule pass, and created another shooting opportunity as well, his two key passes double his usual rate of 0.9 per 90.

And Dier arguably shone just as much without gaining the same plaudits. Dier will not run with the ball, but he certainly runs without it. Each time an attack broke down, Dier was there closing the angle, squeezing Everton, snuffing out any potential for a counter and ensuring that we won it back quickly. Dier was not just defensively sound, though. 48 of Dier’s 66 passes were forward and he got an assist with a wonderful cross for Kane’s second goal. Neither Dier not Dembélé was particularly expansive – 61/66 passes were played short by Dier, 65/66 for Dembélé – but they used the ball quickly, intelligently, and progressively.

Whilst on the subject of eye-catching play, the team move (every player touched the ball) for our final goal was a thing of beauty. We went from back-to-front quickly and efficiently with so few touches required; Dele’s flick to take Jonjoe Kenny out of the game was a particular highlight of the move. Eriksen’s finish made it look easy, but he timed it to perfection and met the ball with a sweet connection which oozed technical brilliance.

Aurier was again heavily involved in that move, getting away from Sigurdsson’s lethargic attempt at tracking back. Aurier had a mixed bag in terms of his productivity in this match, with none of his five crosses finding a Spurs man (his assist didn’t go down as a cross), but he is adding a regular outlet on the right with his dynamic forward movement. He also averages 1.2 dribbles per 90 minutes, two-thirds of which are successful. He takes his man on more regularly than Ben Davies (0.8 per 90) and Kieran Trippier (0.6) but less so than Danny Rose (3.0), though only 1.6 per 90 of Rose’s take-ons have been successful. I’m excited to see what Pochettino can do to develop Aurier over the next year as he settles into our style.

Spurs have a very tricky period coming up in a fortnight where we play Manchester United (H), Liverpool (A), Arsenal (H) and Juventus (A). This will likely be our most challenging period of the season but we’re coming into it in good nick. We may have a dilemma, though. With Toby Alderweireld’s return reportedly not too far away, Pochettino must decide whether to revert back to a back three to accommodate him, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen, or to stick with the 4-2-3-1 which is working so well at the moment.

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December 25, 2017

Mid-Season Thoughts

We released a new The Fighting Cock: The Extra Inch podcast a few days ago in which we discussed the season so far. It’s been an interesting start to the campaign for Spurs, tactically and otherwise and I thought we did a reasonable job on the podcast of rounding things up. But there were also some bits we didn’t cover which I’d like to write about.

At this point of the season it’s clear that the Champions League has been the priority, and naturally the league form has suffered a little. We still don’t have the squad to be able to manage both successfully, at least not with the injuries we have 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 yet.

The Champions League performances have been staggeringly good. No doubt that Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund were not at the top of their form, but they still have fantastic players and know how to win these types of games. The way that we approached all of our matches was savvy, and showed that we’d learnt from last year’s mistakes, which is all one can ask.

Our Premier League performances have been patchy. The remarkable thrashing of Liverpool, that of Huddersfield Town, Stoke City and latterly of the defensively-sound Burnley have been offset somewhat by our own annihilation at the hands of Man City, as well as disappointing home draws with Burnley, Swansea City and West Brom. Wembley took some adapting to.

Pochettino’s been troubled by injuries to key players in key positions leading to various re-shuffles. Victor Wanyama being out is bad news in itself, but with Toby Alderweireld also missing, the need for Eric Dier to drop back into defence to complete the three (or just a two at times!) has left the midfield weak. This, along with Davinson Sanchez’s suspension, led to the return of the back four.

Pochettino has often chosen to play a three-man central midfield this year, presumably partly due to Wanyama’s absence and partly to accommodate Moussa Sissoko. He’s been reticent to risk/trust Sissoko in a two, though he did play that role for the first time against Burnley, and he did it well, keeping things ticking over in the middle whilst Dier went back to his favoured screening role.

The three-man midfield had – in my opinion – halted our attacking impetus, leading to overcrowded central areas and a struggle to spread play quickly. In simplistic terms, it has often caused us to make an extra pass when moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, slowing us down, allowing the opposition to shuffle across. It has also meant that Eriksen has typically played deeper, which has limited his involvement in goals. This year he is averaging a goal or assist every 164.4 minutes, compared with 115.4 across last season. There are other reasons for this, sure, but it’s clearly had a direct impact on his game.

Not many teams could cope without their two most naturally defensive midfielders at once, and it’s a pity that Pochettino has had to (chosen to?) move Dier back for a number of matches rather than to attempt alternatives. It’s probably no surprise that, ignoring the Chelsea game at the start of the season (when Wembley/fitness was an issue), our four Premier League losses (Manchester United, Leicester City, Arsenal, Manchester City) came in matches where we didn’t have Dier or Wanyama in midfield.

The revelation of the season so far has undoubtedly been Davinson Sanchez. 18 months ago this 21-year old was playing for Atlético Nacional in Colombia. He’s only actually played 100 professional matches, but what a player he is. His reading of the game and ability to resist the press are sensational for a player of his age and inexperience. When you add in that he has immense strength and recovery pace, you basically have the full package for a defender. There’s certainly more to come from him in terms of stepping into midfield and using the ball in a slightly more creative way, but there’s a heck of a lot to be excited about. Along with Harry Kane (who has contributed 15 of our 34 goals, a league high contribution) he’s probably been our Player of the Season so far.

We go into the last week of December in good shape: still in the Champions League, a kind FA Cup draw, accelerating into the new year in the Premier League, and with key players returning from injury. We look likely to sign at least one in January (Ross Barkley) with the possibility of others joining too. The Harry Kane Team marches on.

Thanks for reading and commenting this year, for all of your support for my blog, other articles, Twitter account and our podcast. I look forward to more of the same in 2018. Have a wonderful Christmas and I wish you a Happy New Year. COYS!

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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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Southgate on Kane in 2014. https://t.co/t2ynUg8a88
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