Last night I watched a 20-year old midfielder come off the bench and totally change the game in a Premier League 2 match. Until his introduction, his team had struggled to put more than five passes together, had offered no threat, and had no assuredness in midfield.
He made an instant impact, being heavily involved in two chances within minutes of coming on. He then scored two goals to totally turn the match around, winning it for his team; the second was an outrageous finish (albeit from close range). These were his ninth and tenth goals of the season. He also has six assists. From midfield!
Spurs should be trying to steal a march on other clubs to sign this player as he has that intangible quality that very few players have of always being in the right place at the right time. It’s a trait that I associate with Dele, and before him I associated with Thomas Müller.
The player was Jack Roles. He’s a Spurs fan who went to Enfield Grammar School and has been at the club since he was six years old. He is out of contract at the end of the season and looks set to leave on a free transfer.
Watch Roles’ goals here, and pay particular attention to the second:
Before I go any further I just want to outline that I feel a little subconscious in writing this blog article. I can almost hear the groans and cries of ‘oh, Windy’s banging on about young players again’ or ‘another agenda-driven article about lack of opportunity’. That’s because I regularly get the @s on Twitter telling me that this is the case (woe is me, etc etc).
So, to clarify, I totally understand that Spurs are operating incredibly successfully. I also understand that it’s difficult to integrate youth players when you are competing for titles. I also understand that the development of youth players can be seen as a ‘nice to have’ by fans and that that is a legitimate view. I am not suggesting for a second that I know better than Pochettino and his team and if their method is their chosen solution having analysed all other possible solutions, then so be it: in Pochettino we trust, ad nauseam. I am also not suggesting that all youth players should get first team minutes. There are many of our Academy players who I feel will ultimately not be good enough for the Premier League, let alone Spurs.
I am a Spurs fan above all else, and being a watcher of academy football, appreciator of clubs that develop their young players, and England fan all sit beneath that. What I will go on to suggest, though, is that — from an outsider’s perspective — it seems to me as that we could make small tweaks which could have a positive impact on all aspects of the club from squad development to financial sustainability to ethos-nurturing.
Premier League clubs are developing a reputation for losing young English (or English-Cypriot in Roles’s case, he qualifies to play for both England and Cyprus) talent and Spurs are no different. We have already seen Reo Griffiths, Keanan Bennetts and Noni Madeuke move abroad (as I mentioned here, along with Miloš Veljković). Should Marcus Edwards not get an opportunity on the first team’s pre-season tour next year I expect he won’t be far behind given the reputation he is building in the Eredivisie. Perhaps Roles will also be considering a move to a European club this summer.
For more information on the talent drain, I suggest reading Miguel Delaney’s excellent article ‘How the Bundesliga is attracting the Premier League’s best young players and why it’s just the beginning‘ which includes one killer quote from the director of football at a Ligue 1: “English clubs seem to give the least amount of respect to the same players they’ve spent years developing.”
The well-known and reliable COYS Twitter account Lilywhite Rose has stated that Roles is yet to be offered a contract extension, which (assuming it is true) can only really mean three things:
- That the club are waiting until the summer to discuss contracts with young players. A high-risk strategy if true.
- That the club do not rate Roles as highly as I do. This is plausible, particularly as he has rarely — if ever — been seen training with the first team.
- That there is a stand-off between the club and Roles (most likely around a pathway to the first team).
Re: the third suggestion, which I believe to be the most likely: we’ve been here before with Veljković and with Griffiths. In each case, the player would not sign a contract until they were given assurances about game-time, and they would not be given game-time until they had signed contracts. You can see the logic from both sides. Players will have seen Kyle Walker-Peters sign a contract, train with the first team squad and ultimately waste the best part of three years playing little football at any level; they will understandably be nervous about committing. As an aside, Walker-Peters has staggeringly played nearly as many minutes for the England Under-21s as he has at any level for Spurs since August 2017.
Mauricio Pochettino this week laid it on thick about how much he has done for English football. These comments were in response to his two-match touchline ban.
“When we were talking about the suspension about the FA, I remember we started to provide the belief at Southampton with young players, we provide English football and U-16, U-18, U-21 the possibility to grow.
When we start seven years ago there was a massive mentality change in this country. People talk about the young players through the Southampton academy and then here at Tottenham. It’s a massive thing. Your identity is through young players.
It was fantastic to see Manchester United players come on for their debuts [in the Champions League on Wednesday]. It is amazing. That is the identity of English football. I am in England. I have double nationality but my responsibility as a manager here its to provide the best thing for English football to build players and provide talent. That responsibility was one of my priorities to provide back the opportunity English football gave to me.”‘Mauricio Pochettino ‘in shock’ over touchline ban as Tottenham ask FA for answers‘, Dan Kilpatrick for the Evening Standard
This season Pochettino has given 418 minutes to four players aged under 21; 373 of these minutes have gone to the youngest, Oliver Skipp (and credit to Pochettino for that). Timothy Eyoma, the latest debutant from the Academy, was the fifteenth Spurs academy player to debut under Pochettino, but that impressive figure perhaps doesn’t tell the full story. The list below includes each of those 15, the number of minutes each has played and is ordered by when the players made their debut.
- TJ Eyoma: 11 (January 2019)
- George Marsh: 25 (January 2019)
- Oliver Skipp: 373 (October 2018)
- Luke Amos: 2 (August 2018)
- Kazaiah Sterling: 9 (December 2017)
- Anthony Georgiou: 6 (September 2017)
- Tashan Oakley-Boothe: 0, added time sub (September 2017)
- Kyle Walker-Peters: 880 (August 2017)
- Filip Lesniak: 4 (May 2017)
- Shayon Harrison: 7 (October 2016)
- Anton Walkes: 10 (September 2016)
- Marcus Edwards: 15 (September 2016)
- Cameron Carter-Vickers: 360 (September 2016)
- Josh Onomah: 807 (January 2015)
- Harry Winks: 5366 (November 2014)
The total number of minutes for Academy players who were given debuts under Pochettino is 7,875. According to Transfermarkt, since Pochettino has been at Spurs we have played 262 matches. That’s 259,380 minutes available. Thus we can say that 3% of available minutes have gone to Academy players given their debut under Pochettino*. If you take Winks out of the equation that comes down to under 1%.
*NB: if you add in Ryan Mason, who Pochettino arguably ‘trusted’ first then it goes up to 4.5%, though as we know Mason was 23 by this point and had clocked up nearly 5,000 minutes of football league action prior to his opportunity.
There are, of course, reasons for this. Some rebuttals may be:
- The young players that our Academy produces are not good enough.
- We can’t take risks, we’re challenging for the title.
- We have too many older pros needing minutes.
- Developing young players is not our priority.
Some of these are legitimate rebuttals. Some of them are legitimate in relation to certain players/contexts.
Again, to clarify, I am not here to criticise Pochettino’s overall management of the club. He is the greatest manager we have had in my lifetime. I love this man and what he has done for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Indeed, one could argue that the success of the first team should come as a priority over all other aspects of running the club. But Pochettino himself doesn’t argue that: he says (*scrolls up to check quote again*) ‘your identity is through young players.’
In the context of developing young players he doesn’t practice what he preaches and, as a result, more young talent will continue to leave. Whether you believe that to be a problem or not depends on your perspective but, at the very least, it can and should be seen as a waste of resource in terms of time, effort, money and an opportunity cost in terms of not playing them.
For example, we can look at the £11m and 590 minutes wasted on Georges-Kévin Nkoudou and the £10m and 386 minutes wasted on Clinton Njié as a case study. If we had given those 976 minutes to an Academy player, we could likely have created a selling value for that player of £5m+. It would be difficult to argue that that player would have done any worse than either of the two players mentioned. Best-case scenario, they become another Harry Kane or Winks. Worst case scenario, they are the cause of us losing a match or two and are never seen again. Even if you assume, conservatively, that a thousand first team minutes would lead to an academy player having a value of just £1m, that’s still a swing of £22m (and that’s ignoring wages). The value would more likely be higher, though: I’d argue that Kyle Walker-Peters’ market value is at least £8m (probably more as an England-U21 international with five Premier League assists in just 292 minutes), and that’s after just 880 first team minutes.
There is another point worth making that is specific to Pochettino and to the list of players given debuts. There’s a common trait amongst many of the players: they’re mostly worker bees. There’s a feeling that under Pochettino if young players ‘work hard’ then they will get their chances. What characterises ‘working hard’ is different depending on the type of player, though and, as such, I have a theory that Pochettino is pretty good at giving opportunities to hard-working midfielders (Winks, Skipp, Amos, Marsh, Lesniak, Walkes) but that he struggles to bring through the more mercurial players, of which Roles is certainly one.
My theory is that combative midfielders find it easier to ‘show character’ since that is one of the traits that they have been led to develop over the course of their fledgling careers. Indeed, these are traits that could come naturally to them and have led to them becoming central midfielders in the first place. So if George Marsh — a bloody hard-working, tenacious but ultimately limited player — charges around in training putting tackles in, doing the hard yards, catches the eye and gets minutes for the first team ahead of, say, Sam Shashoua, a technically-gifted, creative, door-unlocking but undoubtedly mercurial player, then in my opinion something has gone wrong. This is not meant to be disrespectful to Marsh who I hope will go on to have a good career himself (and who is clearly a good lad, and a proper ‘team man’), but Shashoua’s ceiling in terms of technique and overall ability is far higher. Lesniak, who Pochettino used, now plays for AaB in the Danish Superliga. Walkes for Portsmouth in League One. These are not elite-level players but they were prioritised over others.
Some people will point towards attitude. Perhaps Lesniak and Walkes ‘had the right attitude’. Perhaps they were better professionals than others. And that could be true (though I suspect attitude is in the eye of the beholder), but then it is up to the club to develop these professional behaviours better through their Academy structures: after all, they have them from when they are children in many cases.
If Jack Roles leaves this summer he may go on to have a mediocre career at a League Two club, scoring the odd FA Cup goal and Spurs may not regret a thing. But the development of young players is not linear, is not straightforward, and key choices at key times can change everything. For example, Connor Ogilvie was an outstanding left-back as an Under-18 at Spurs and was regularly in England squads as a result. He subsequently slumped — as so many do — when caught between the Under-18s and the first team. Had he been given a few minutes for Spurs or out on loan at 18 he may now be a very good left-back at this point. As it is, he’s 23 and is on-loan at Gillingham in League One (admittedly producing a League One player is not to be sniffed at). The point is that ability needs to be harnessed, we need to take advantage of the crests of these waves. Opportunities need to be dangled, loans found, work done to stop players taking their scholarship and moving on.
There’s a wider piece here about the cesspit that is the Premier League 2 and post-scholarship life which I’ll probably write soon, but for now my point is this: if we do not give opportunities either in our first team, or by utilising the loan system, we will continue to lose our best talent and then need to buy similar talents back for a lot of money years later. In fact, we’ll end up buying lesser talents in some cases — Njié was never a youth player for the Cameroon national team, he just happened to get an opportunity and suddenly was ‘worth’ £10m and ‘worth’ prioritising over an Academy player.
I personally hope that Pochettino has a change in approach next season, and either appoints someone to fix up some loan deals (I’d like a Sporting Director/Director of Football as discussed here) or gives young players the odd bench place based upon in-game meritocracy: if you play well for the Under-18s you get to play for the Under-23s; if you play well for the Under-23s you get on the bench in a League Cup match against Grimsby; and so on. This subtle change would lead to a burgeoning culture of opportunity and would totally change the perception around young talent being wasted at Spurs. And, who knows, we might end up with another Kane or Winks on our hands.
To finish on a high, there were other promising performances from some of our youngsters in last night’s victory over Leicester. The team list with the year of their birth is below; I think this illustrates nicely how young a lot of these players are — Dennis Cirkin is not 17 for another month, as an example.
Starting XI, 4-2-3-1: Austin (1999); Hinds (2000), Lyons-Foster (2000), Dinzeyi (1999), Cirkin (2002); White (2001), Marsh (1998); Oakley-Boothe (2000), Maghoma (2001), Bennett (2001); Tracey (1998). Substitutes: Roles (1999), Duncan (1999), Walcott (2002), De Bie (2000), Markanday (2001).
The best players on the night other than MOTM Roles were J’Neill Bennett, Dennis Cirkin, Tariq Hinds and Harvey White.