Project Restart: Effing Absurd

It’s been a while – too long – I hope you’re well. I hope your family and friends are well. I hope you’re coping okay with lockdown.

This has been a pretty difficult period for everyone. I consider myself lucky, but it’s still not easy. My girlfriend is shielding, we live separately. I miss her terribly. Like many others, I have not seen family or friends – or anyone, aside from delivery drivers, the postwoman and neighbours – since this all began. I am lucky enough to still have my job which has been largely unaffected aside from the move to working from home. My work has allowed me to retain a sense of purpose and a routine.

Outside work, I have enjoyed continuing to record podcasts (The Extra Inch, our Tottenham Hotspur podcast) throughout the period for the same reason – a source of purpose – and for a chance to catch up with mates as a distraction from the repetitiveness. I spoke to The Guardian for this piece on podcasting in the pandemic.

My dad was briefly unwell at the beginning of the pandemic. As it turned out, he had pneumonia. It was an incredibly worrying time, and my heart goes out to anyone who has suffered loss or has had similar concerns for the health of their loved ones.

I had mixed feelings when I saw Harry Kane, Tanguy Ndombele, Son Heung-min et al return to training. On one hand: man, had I missed these guys. It was lovely to see them, their familiar faces. It felt normal, it felt every day. We’re so used to seeing these training clips – shooting drills, pressing drills. It briefly lifted me out of what has become the ‘new normal’ (as everyone keeps saying) at home. On the other hand: why on earth is this happening now? We’re all locked down – for good reason – and we’re sending these men to their non-essential work when the virus is not even close to being suppressed in our country.

Over the past month I have recorded two podcasts with Alex Benham. He is brilliant. Alex is a listener of The Extra Inch and he got in touch with us (podcast at TheExtraInch dot co dot uk.) having heard Nathan A Clark exclaim that the idea of restarting the Premier League was ‘fucking absurd’.

Alex is a researcher working on the history of public health. He is undertaking a PhD at Oxford University and has spent the last two years researching pandemics and government responses to pandemics. He is well qualified to put what we’re all going through now into a historical context, and also to make observations about our response.

I thought it would be really useful to invite Alex to converse with me in blog form about Covid-19 and, in particular, the Premier League’s response to it and their intentions going forward.

Alex, we spoke at length on the podcast about the historic echoes of this. You talked me through the Mumbai plague and the Spanish flu, and the government responses to each, but what are the headlines here?

So the obvious headline is the striking parallels between these pandemics in the past and this one – the novel coronavirus – that is currently in the process of redefining the present. The British state’s response to both Bubonic Plague in colonial Mumbai (1896-1920), and the Spanish Flu in mainland Britain (1918-1919), is characterised by three key features. Firstly, the authorities attempt to deny the severity of the pandemic. In Mumbai, the first reports of the plague reached the British in May 1896, but they didn’t officially acknowledge its presence until October, 6 months later. Secondly, they delay acting to contain the spread of disease – Spanish Flu reached Britain in May 1918, but the authorities delayed taking proper measures until the Autumn. Thirdly, these denials and delays are driven by a desire to preserve the economy at all costs, even if that is a heavy cost to life. In Mumbai, the priority of the British was to keep the city’s thriving port open, and maintain India’s trade with the rest of the world. In 2020, as the British Government try and push people back to work amidst a pandemic – after first denying its severity, then delaying their response – it’s not hard to see the parallels.

We have history in not responding decisively then. We have dithered, and there’s a discussion to be had around the reason for this dithering – whether it is a strategy to attempt to reassure the public, an attempt to maintain the economy for as long as possible, or simply indecision. I think it’s useful to have this historical knowledge of previous responses to frame the discussion. You spoke in a lot more detail about this on the first podcast we did together (The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd) – I had no idea of the parallels and it was fascinating to learn about those pandemics, though shocking to hear about the mass loss of life. I put a trigger warning on the first podcast because it is not content that everyone will be comfortable with.

Let’s move on to the football because that is the purpose of this blog. Here, there is also some historic significance which bears repeating. The Spanish flu had a direct impact on football, right?

Yes it did; although national competitions were suspended for the First World War, regional leagues continued.  This meant competitive football was played throughout the worst period of the Spanish Flu – late 1918 – and probably contributed to its spread. Chelsea, for example, played three home games in November 1918 – Brentford, Millwall and Tottenham – each time with more than 10,000 people at Stamford Bridge. In that same month, the local area saw 100 deaths from influenza. Two Chelsea players went on to contract Spanish Flu – Logan and Ford –as did two of the club’s vice presidents – Hayes-Fisher and Joynson-Hicks. Elsewhere, footballers had begun to die: Angus Douglas, the former Chelsea outside right, Jack Allan, a forward for Nottingham Forest and John Pattinson, a winger for Doncaster Rovers. All were under the age of 35 when they died. Douglas was just 29. Even more tragically, Douglas’s wife also died of the virus, leaving their daughter orphaned.

It would be very easy to skim over that. Old, dead people. Sad. Re-read it, but this time insert the names of current players and officials in the place of Logan, Ford, Hayes-Fisher, Joynson-Hicks, Douglas, Allan and Patttison. Allow the tragedy to become more tangible, closer.

The Premier League has commenced its Project Restart plan before ‘lockdown’ has ended. 1,000 people – players and club officials – are being tested regularly for Covid-19. If they test positive, they go into isolation for seven days. But Alex, you’re not convinced by the approach to testing, are you?

So the Premier League is depending on a program of bi-weekly qPCR tests (to give them their full name, Reverse Transcription Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction tests) to protect its players and staff. The procedure is relatively simple, you take a swab sample – usually from the back of the throat – and test it to see if it contains a significant quantity of viral RNA (the molecule that stores the genetic code of the coronavirus).  The problem with coronavirus is that – like most pulmonary viruses – the quantity of the virus in someone’s respiratory system varies massively from person to person – some will have large quantities, some almost none at all. The quantity also varies according to the stage of the infection –  most importantly, some people will only have a detectable quantity of the virus in their system for a few days after the beginning of the infection. This is one of the reasons the coronavirus qPCR test can have a higher false negative test rate – i.e. missing the virus even though someone has the infection.

According to Dr James Gill at Warwick Medical School – when tested alone, the PCR test has a 66.7% detection rate within the first week – so about 67% of people who have coronavirus will test positive on the PCR test. Avi Lasarow, who is the Chief Executive of the company (Prenetics) providing the qPCR tests to the League, claims the test is 98.8% accurate. My scepticism about this claim is partly a product of the science behind it, and partly a consequence of the person making it. In 2015, Lasarow settled a court case with the Federal Trade Commission. The charge? Making ‘unfair or deceptive’ claims about a skin cancer test app sold by his company.

Players are likely to be mixing with others who have coronavirus but are not testing positive or not yet testing positive. The virus could spread to other players, to coaches and officials and beyond – to their families, housemates and members of the public.

Training is different – players train in small groups. Initially it was contact-free, though that soon changed.

The idea that players can quickly change learned behaviours and practices -which are so embedded into their ways of working and lifestyles and have been since they were children – is at worst, whimsical, and at best, hopeful. Even if the training pitch is a relative safe space, the changing rooms and any other inside areas are going to prove a logistical nightmare. I worry when I think of the kitchen and toilets in the office that I work in. A training ground is different – 30+ players and coaches with streaming noses, panting and puffing. And that’s before we even consider the logistics around the matches themselves.

On the follow-up podcast (The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd… Part 2) we asked a question from Seamus Harte‏ (@Seamus_Harte).

Seamus nailed it. Why are the Premier League pressing ahead with this? Money is the main and possibly only reason. The longer that football-less society continues, the more football clubs lose money. The fear is that clubs will go out of business without the money that football generates. In the Premier League, where the risk of clubs going bankrupt is lower, the issues are that clubs will lose money and become less competitive – they will no longer be able to afford the best players. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that Premier League fans look towards the Bundesliga. The more Premier League players look towards the Bundesliga. Alex, what do you think will happen if we just crack on?

Lets get one thing straight. The week the Bundesliga returned, less than 1,000 people in Germany were becoming infected with coronavirus every day. In Britain, the same week, around 20,000 people per day were becoming infected. The Bundesliga came back because Germany had suppressed the virus. The Premier League is coming back because Britain has failed to suppress the virus, and is desperate for a distraction from the destruction being wrought by this failure. If the Premier League go ahead with this plan, players and staff are going to get sick. This week the Daily Mail reported that the Premier League has been approached by one club executive who, in the context of Covid-19, is ‘concerned about a corporate manslaughter prosecution.’ Amidst all the excitement at football’s return, clubs are quietly considering what to do if players start dying.

There is some resistance. Some players are standing up for themselves and their communities. Black players in particular. We know that the BME community is disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Alex, you discussed all of this on the follow-up podcast, and I think it’s important that we highlight the key points again here.

The reality is that Covid-19 deaths are twice as high for BME people as they are for white people in Britain, and almost four times as high for those from a Black British African background. This disproportionate death toll is partly a result of the fact that BME people are over-represented in the riskiest jobs – a ‘third of all working-age Black Africans are employed in key worker roles, 50% more than the share of the White British population.’ Even if we just look at hospitals, ‘Pakistani, Indian and Black African men are respectively 90%, 150% and 310% more likely to work in healthcare than white British men.’ This goes all the way back to the end of the Empire, the deliberate recruitment of commonwealth migrants to the NHS and Transport for London.  Secondly BME people suffer the effects of structural racism – as well as riskier jobs, BME people experience poorer housing, with higher rates of overcrowding, greater levels of air pollution, and greatly reduced access to green space. This contributes to the prevalence of underlying health conditions amongst those with a Bangladeshi, Pakistani or black Caribbean background.

Black working class players, like Deeney, Kante, Willian, Rose and Sterling, have been forced to be most vocal about their concerns about the restart because they are from the group put most at risk by it. Their friends and families are more likely to have underlying health conditions – and more likely to be key workers – than those of their white teammates. Lets not forget that Sterling’s mother used to work as a cleaner, as did Kante’s mother, as did Willian’s mother. These black players will be disproportionately exposed to tragedy – to quote Sterling ‘this is massive, this is something I’ve never seen. . . I’ve had friends whose grandma’s passed away, I’ve had family members as well that have passed away.’ It’s a dire indictment of football, that, once again, black players are being forced to publicly demand the most basic rights and protections.

Solidarity with all of these players who are putting their heads above the parapets.

There will be different views on all of this, as I discovered when I tweeted about the subject yesterday. Some people believe that the risk to life is minimal (“It’s a nursing home epidemic.”) and are just delighted that football will be returning. Whatever your views, some further resources to keep yourself informed are below.

Take good care of yourself and your loved ones.


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How I Feel

I’ve called this ‘How I Feel’ because, for me, football and the conversations around it impact on my feelings. What a snowflake. When Spurs were playing well and it felt like the club and its fan-base were together, I felt great! We all did. Now things are not going well and divisions have set in, I feel sad about it. I feel helpless, powerless, I’m not enjoying the football, I feel like part of my weekly or bi-weekly escapism has become a chore.

I don’t mean to be alarmist – I’m fine! Fortunately, I am a resilient person who has good mental health and I look after myself. But many fans are not, and this period is going to be difficult for them.*

I knew that José Mourinho was a divisive figure. But I didn’t realise quite how quickly those divides would appear. A large portion of our fan-base struggled with the idea of his appointment, not least because he followed an almost universally popular manager.

Our exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Norwich, as well as Mourinho’s handling of the Tanguy Ndombele predicament this weekend are allowing those who don’t want him at the club to vent with some legitimacy.

The position I have arrived at is that, without Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, and with other constant injuries cropping up due to a necessary over-reliance on other players, this season is not going to get any better. So I am over it. I have mentally moved on and accepted that this is a bad football team for the rest of the season.

I am ready for the summer, ready for our best players to get fit again, ready for us to sign a defensive midfielder, a centre-back, a couple of new full-backs and another striker. I am ready to see what team and what tactics Mourinho can put together for next season. I will judge him at Christmas when he has had a pre-season with his own squad.

But, in the meantime, the constant squabbling, finger-pointing and point-scoring amongst fans is almost as draining as watching this bad Tottenham team play 120 minutes against Norwich.**

It’s a bit like having a discussion about Brexit on Twitter: the two sides of the argument somehow become more entrenched, there is absolutely no progress towards a resolution and, instead, everybody comes away from the discussion feeling worse about it. So, ultimately, it’s probably better not to have it in the first place, or certainly not in this way.

If you think Mourinho is not the man for Spurs – and that’s absolutely fine, of course – then using the rest of the season as a stick to beat Mourinho with as if you’re some kind of soothsayer seems fruitless. We are playing without Kane and Son and with the decomposing corpse of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur squad. It’s not like Mourinho is suddenly going to invent a new system which fixes these major problems and immediately turns around the mindsets of the players after a year of gradually declining self-belief and confidence. And, crucially, telling everyone else over and over just how badly you think Mourinho is doing is probably going to make you feel worse. And it’ll make everyone else you’re communicating with feel worse too.

Equally, if you feel that Mourinho is absolutely the best man for Tottenham (also fine) and you continue to beat that drum despite any tangible evidence that he’s actually making a positive change, then be aware that you are rubbing it in the face of all of those fans who did not want him in the first place and now absolutely do not want him.

The football is bad enough without two sides of an increasingly toxic debate splitting our (briefly cohesive) fan-base any further. Much like our society is bad enough without two sides of a toxic debate causing yet more division, more hate, feeding into a situation which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or, frankly, maybe I should just mind my own business. Shout into the void if you want. Get the negativity out and share it amongst your friends and followers, watch it spread.*** Because my way of dealing with this run-in is, most likely, going to be to withdraw from social media anyway. I think we’re all going to need some coping mechanisms because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Enjoy your Spurs-free Sunday!

*If you are struggling you should know that there are people there to help. Reach out to a friend – you’ll be surprised how receptive they are. Alternatively, consider calling CALM or The Samaritans.

**I’ve already had my say on where I personally think the blame rests.

***Let it be said that I am stopping short of a Coronavirus analogy here because, frankly, some things are way more important than football.


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Where We Go From Here

Chelsea

I convinced myself that we would beat Chelsea, that we would move into fourth and that the absence of our two star strikers, two best players would be less keenly felt than anticipated. I’m an idiot.

Jose Mourinho pre-warned of rotation for the run of three games in six days, and this team selection reflected both that plan, and a plan to match up to Chelsea’s back three. But whereas Chelsea’s was a definite back three, Mourinho set up in a flat back five. Japhet Tanganga had not played full-back before moving into the first team, but was deployed on the right of a back five here.

Serge Aurier had two poor games against Aston Villa and RB Leipzig and was overdue a rest, but this didn’t seem an ideal use of Tanganga’s skillset. Whilst he was not asked to run forward with the ball or be particularly progressive, the ball was regularly shuttled out to him as Chelsea pressed from the front. He tried three things to get out of trouble: finding an angle for a pass inside (easier said than done); winning throws by playing up the line; stepping inside to commit the pressing player. He had limited success with each, such is his skillset and he endured a difficult afternoon. Unfortunately, Juan Foyth, who is better in possession and may have been a better selection, is still recovering from injury, so Mourinho’s choice was ‘keep flogging Aurier and pray he doesn’t get injured from fatigue’ or ‘try Tanganga’. On the other side, Ben Davies was just as ineffective, playing his third game in the period – not ideal when just returning from injury.

The full-backs weren’t Spurs’ only problem, of course, but the inability to beat the press was playing into Chelsea’s hands. As Mourinho pointed out post-match ‘If they press us high, they know that if we go long we don’t win a single ball against the opponent’s defenders, If they drop the block and go with low block, they know it’s difficult for us to get into the box, especially from the sides. So opponents they know if they score a goal before us we’re in trouble.’

Frank Lampard certainly motivated and organised his players well but, essentially, without Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, we are easy to plan for.

Mourinho tried to do his best to find solutions to the press – namely by selecting our most ‘press-resistant’ midfield in Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, but then he played Lo Celso from the right, in a curious move. He still had more touches (87) than any other Spurs player on the pitch but we struggled to get him involved in the first half when his presence was badly needed to help move the ball through midfield.

Ndombele looked – as ever – unfit whilst Chelsea’s midfield of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, with Mason Mount and Ross Barkley snapping into tackles and closing space quickly ahead of them, looked the opposite: fit, sharp, spritely, motivated.

One positive came in the shape of Steven Bergwijn. Though these were small steps towards finding a solution to missing our two best goal-getters, he showed an ability to be able to play with his back to goal. Bergwijn is excellent technically – an immaculate first touch, neat turning circle and – crucially – a real awareness of those around him. His lay-offs and link-up play were impressive, particularly given he was up against three centre-backs with little support.

Lucas

And thus we move onto Lucas Moura. Lucas Moura is a club legend in my eyes – his name will never be forgotten at White Hart Lane. That display against Ajax will be recounted to new fans for generations. But Mourinho’s persistence with Lucas as a starting player is hurting us.

Lucas’ first touch is an issue in itself. It’s not consistent enough, often ending up with his second being a tackle as the ball gets away from him. But it’s decision-making that’s so problematic. Like Son, Lucas dribbles with his head down. He’s an effective dribbler – those quick feet and that burst of acceleration – but the fact that he’s got his head down means that he 1. often runs into defenders, and 2. is unaware of his teammates. But, unlike Son, there’s little of note at the end of his dribbles.

Whilst Lucas’ effort levels are tremendous, they are not matched by his output. In his last ten starts he has one goal and one assist. And let’s remember that he has mostly played up front in that time.

But it isn’t just the last ten games – it’s Lucas’ productivity across his Spurs career. A goal or assist every 184.6 minutes; it takes more than two matches for Lucas to get a goal or assist. This season it’s 227.9, or 257.8 in the Premier League; this is very bad.

Lucas has nine assists in nearly 6,000 minutes played for us. It seems cruel to compare his 184.6 mins per goal/assist ration to Son’s 109.1 minutes, but even the oft-criticised Lamela manages a goal or assist every 152.9 minutes.

Of course, the other reason for removing Lucas from the starting XI for a while is that he’s a genuinely useful ‘change up’ option to have on the bench. When you need an injection of pace against tired legs, he’s ideal.

Lucas seems to be a Mourinho favourite – we all remember those quotes at the beginning of Mourinho’s tenure about wanting to sign him previously. Plus, removing him from the team now will be seen as madness, given our lack of other forward options. But, in my opinion, it’s essential that we try something new if we want to start scoring regularly again.

Mourinho’s impossible situation

It didn’t take long for sections of the fan-base to turn on Mourinho – plenty were never fully ‘for’ him in the first place. But it seems to me to be the wrong time to be judging him.

The team that Mourinho inherited was fundamentally broken. On a downward turn that – if we’re honest – had been going on for the best part of a year (the Champions League run tricking us into thinking everything was okay). There was no structure or cohesion on the pitch, team unity seemed to be lacking. I think he did the right things in letting Christian Eriksen leave, in getting rid of Danny Rose, in tying Toby Alderweireld down to a new contract. The January signings seemed sensible, albeit more reinforcements would have been nice (more on that here).

The number of matches since he arrived three months ago has meant that he has had limited time on the training ground to implement tactical improvements and, when he has had that time, he has been hit by injury after injury: Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Kane and now Son Heung-min. Giovani Lo Celso wasn’t available at the start. Tanguy Ndombele has barely been available either.

I understand that fans don’t want to see a low to medium block, inviting teams that we feel we are on a par with onto us, and trying to counter-attack them. But I believe that Mourinho has very few options at the moment that don’t involve doing that. Had he attempted to play through midfield against RB Leipzig they would have picked us off at will. Chelsea pressed us effectively and forced us to play long and then mopped up those long balls. When we tried to play it into midfield, they got bodies around us and won the ball back. These are not easy matches when you have so many limiting factors at play at once. It’s not like we had a working system pre-Mourinho and he just needed to tweak things: he had to go back to basics and try to re-build the team structure from scratch.

We now have a comparatively favourable run of fixtures in March (though it involves six matches in 20 days):

  • Wolverhampton Wanderers (H) – PL
  • Norwich City (H) – FAC
  • Burnley (A) – PL
  • RasenBallsport Leipzig (A) – CL
  • Manchester United (H) – PL
  • West Ham (H) – PL

What I hope to see from these matches is a solution forming up front that does not involve Lucas. I’d like to see Bergwijn continue through the middle, with Dele from the left and Lamela from the right, but both close to Bergwijn to try to connect with him and create opportunities through clever movement and interplay.

I’d like to see some more rotation of and experimentation with the full-backs – I’m happy with Tanganga on the right if it is the ‘withdrawn full-back’ role and Ryan Sessegnon comes in on the left. Foyth could also play there too. Aurier’s performances are so mixed, whilst Davies is clearly not the silver bullet that Mourinho hoped he would be.

I’d like to see Ndombele get a run of games to build fitness – he’s one of our biggest hopes. Keep that midfield together and make it gel.

And I’d like to see us work on set pieces. I have been shouting it into the void on Twitter, but Tanganga needs to be in the box for every corner. He is one of our best players at attacking the ball and he is always held back to cover the counter. We need goals from all possible sources, and set piece goals would be incredibly useful right now.

Fourth is still possible if we can eke out some results, and fifth may yet get us Champions League football. The run-in won’t be pretty, but there’s plenty left to aim for.


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Transfer Round-Up

It’s been an uncharacteristically busy January for Spurs, with José Mourinho attempting to clear up some of the mess that was left for him, whilst attempting to do some forward-planning. He’s not done all the business that he’ll have wanted to do, but, *shrugs*, I guess that’s January?

Steven Bergwijn is the headline-grabbing new-boy, joining from PSV for £27m, but Giovani Lo Celso’s move being made permanent (£27.2m) is arguably the main event. Gedson Fernandes completes the trio of new arrivals, with several players heading out. Let’s note here that Toby Alderweireld signed a new contract in December (‘like a new signing’!), otherwise he might have been heading out in this window too.

Christian Eriksen *did* finally complete a permanent move away, joining Inter for £16.9m. Danny Rose has left for Newcastle United on an initial loan (but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll play for us again). Kyle Walker-Peters has joined Southampton on loan in search of regular game-time.

Youngsters Tashan Oakley-Boothe (Stoke City) and Paris Maghoma (Brentford) have been allowed to leave permanently whilst we have also sent out some younger players to gain experience on loan:

  • Kazaiah Sterling – Leyton Orient
  • Anthony Georgiou – Bolton Wanderers
  • Timothy Eyoma – Lincoln City
  • Brandon Austin – Viborg FF
  • Cameron Carter-Vickers – Luton Town
  • Armando Shashoua – CD Atlético Baleares
  • Jack Clarke – QPR

I was hoping that both Troy Parrott and Oliver Skipp would be heading out, but it would seem not – the story around Parrott a particularly interesting one. Excuse the pretty technical detail that follows, but I think it’s worth noting.

Mourinho said of Parrott in early January:

“He’s 17 years old. I don’t think at the age of 17 it’s good for you to go on loan to a Championship club or to go abroad to another country. My feeling is one thing is when you are 20 if you need that step when you are 19/20, another thing is when you are 17. When you are 17 you are a baby. 17 you just have to be in your father club where you feel at home, where you are at home, where you train and develop with the first team.”

Shortly afterwards, Dan Kilpatrick wrote that he expected Parrott to sign a new, long-term contract after he turned 18 on 4th February. The suggestion from some (and my own assumption too) was that Spurs were quietly applying their rule, again, whereby players are not allowed out on loan until they commit their futures to the club. This all appeared slightly strange to me because, at 17, Parrott is able to sign on for a maximum of three years, and one would think that tying him down and sending him out on loan to get regular games between now and May would benefit him hugely in the future.

It all got a little stranger on deadline day, though, when Dan tweeted an update on Parrott’s situation:

Dan is an excellent reporter with good links to the club and so we can safely assume that this information is entirely accurate. But it seems like a bit of a smokescreen from Spurs.

The reason I say that is that, in terms of the Premier League, Parrott only needs to be at an FA-registered club for 36 months prior to his 21st birthday in order to be considered homegrown*. He is on-course to achieve this (unless we are planning to loan him out to a European club for three years!).

In terms of the Champions League, Parrott can be – and has been – named in Spurs’ Champions League List A Squad. He cannot be included on List B – the ‘freebie’ list of young players – as, although he signed for Spurs in 2017, there were some issues with his registration** and so he has not technically been eligible to play for Spurs for the requisite two years in order to be eligible for List B inclusion.

If teams name a 25-man Champions League squad, eight of the players must be ‘locally trained’, be that ‘club-trained’ or ‘association-trained’***. Club-trained means that they’ve been at the club for three full seasons by the age of 21 (continuously or not). Association-trained is the same, but any club registered with the FA. Parrott is well on-course to become club-trained, but is not there yet.

Perhaps the club view is that that by stopping him going on loan now they can include him as a ‘freebie’ on their Champions League squad next season; a rather short-termist approach, I would argue.

Having not signed a striker, though, my hope is that Parrott signs a long-term contract when he turns 18 on Tuesday and actually starts getting minutes – he’s more than capable at this point.

At the start of January I would have identified a defensive midfielder, full-backs, and a forward as the crucial positions to bolster, and we have not addressed any of these issues. But things have changed since then, and I certainly feel more confident about midfield and full-back areas (though not so much the forward).

Serge Aurier’s continued improvement, as well as Mourinho’s intelligent use of him (as I explain in the clip below) mean that we should be okay on the right until the summer. The emergence of Japhet Tanganga, and his flexibility in playing well on the left as well as the right (or at centre-back, his primary position), plus the return of Ben Davies add up to give us stability on the left too.

Mourinho has been using Harry Winks at the base of midfield, sometimes in a two, sometimes in a three – I suspect that the three will become the norm as we transition to 4-3-3. Whilst Winks is certainly lacking in some defensive skills, once Tanguy Ndombele returns he will have a midfield partner who can cover some of those deficiencies, whilst Giovani Lo Celso’s tenacity and pressing will significantly lessen the load on Winks too. This three-man combination is – in my opinion – the best we can muster at the moment. Without meaning to be cruel to Moussa Sissoko, his absence means that we are no longer seeing the Winks/Sissoko midfield combination which has haunted me for a year – it really does not work. Once Sissoko returns I would hope that he plays on the right or not at all. Winks, Ndombele and Lo Celso, with Gedson and Dier providing back-up/rotation – is not a disaster by any stretch (though, granted, a top quality defensive midfielder would elevate it significantly).

The lack of striker is the big disappointment from the window, but this statement comes with two caveats:

  1. I don’t think Harry Kane’s absence would be as keenly felt were we playing Dele or Son Heung-min or even Erik Lamela up front and not Lucas Moura who, in my eyes, does a pretty poor impression of a striker.
  2. I would really like to see Troy Parrott get some minutes, as mentioned above.

Whilst it’s a pity that we didn’t get a striker deal over the line, I can appreciate that January is a tricky time to land longer-term targets. So the option seemed to be to get someone in short-term (Krzysztof Piątek, Willian José, Olivier Giroud, etc etc) or no-one at all. Watching Manchester United scrabbling around to sign Odion Ighalo in the last minutes of the window in no way made me feel envious, but it did highlight the real challenge of striker-buying at this point in time. Ighalo may well bang in 8-10 goals over the next four months and make me look foolish, but I’m going to say I’d have rather passed than signed him.

I would like to end by talking about the Development Squad, and the radical change we have seen since José Mourinho became manager. Mauricio Pochettino was seen by some as a keen developer of youth players, but for much of his tenure this was not the case. I have spoken previously about how much he has hindered the development of many players with his rigidity in terms of wanting the best youth players to train with the first team squad rather than play games with the Under-23s or out on loan, and his inflexibility in not letting many out on loan more generally.

Mourinho’s introduction has totally overhauled things already; whether that is of his own doing, whether John McDermott is simply being allowed to do things differently or whether it is a combination of both is unknown, but here are the main changes:

  • Japhet Tanganga was brought into the first team. You can only imagine the knock-on effect that this has in terms of mentality – it gives hope of a renewed pathway into the first team for all of our young players and totally changes the perception around being an Academy player at Tottenham Hotspur.
  • Dennis Cirkin has been on the bench. Pochettino would very occasionally draft in younger players that he liked, but Mourinho identified Cirkin very early on and seems keen to give him prolonged exposure.
  • Tashan Oakley-Boothe and Paris Maghoma have been sold. These are good players who likely aren’t good enough for Spurs and who were taking up spaces in the Under-23s (and, honestly, they were stagnating like you wouldn’t believe) which could go to players who need to step up from the Under-18s in order to develop. This decision allows the two players to go and forge a career elsewhere, which is great for them. We got fees for both, presumably nominal, but a fee is a fee.
  • We have let players out on loan. Kyle Walker-Peters will finally get to play some regular football. We have also loaned out Kazaiah Sterling, Anthony Georgiou, TJ Eyoma, Brandon Austin, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Armando Shashoua, Jack Clarke. Obviously some of these were on loan before, but some are going out for the first time, which is great. All of the 97-born, 98-born and 99-born players are now out on loan or in the first team squad (Tanganga, Whiteman) except for Jonathan Dinzeyi.
  • The knock-on effect of these sales and loans internally is that the Under-23 team can now be remodelled to include some of those Under-18s who need to be tested at a higher-level, including Kion Etete, who is impressing so far since moving from Notts County.

This is quite a remarkable turn-around in such a short space of time and fills me with a lot of hope that we are back on track in terms of developing our young players. Identifying those players who aren’t good enough for us but have some value and can be sold for profit, start their careers elsewhere and become actual footballers as opposed to theoretical footballers is a crucial part of managing the Development Squad. I felt as though Mauricio Pochettino never quite had a handle on it and I am already seeing that Mourinho certainly has.

One final thing. It emerged last week that our Academy players were apparently using social media to say goodbye to our talented 18-year old centre-back, Luis Binks.

I have not quite been able to get to the bottom of whether he’s left permanently or on-loan and it’s odd that nothing was announced yesterday. Binks shares an agent with Thierry Henry and there was a suggestion that perhaps he could be off to Montreal Impact, where Henry is coaching. Watch this space, I guess.

If you’re interested in all of this stuff on the youth teams, I urge you to listen to my friend, and youth football expert Carl Hurst on Ledley Kings Knä.

*You can read about the Premier League homegrown regulations in their 2019/20 Premier League squads confirmed article.

**Credit to Reddit user Imbasauce: ‘Troy transfered to us from Dublin on July 2017 (he’s 15years and 5months). According to Fifa rules regarding ‘Protection of Minors’, EU Nationals can only transfer when he reaches the age of 16. This means he couldn’t register with the club officially during his first year.’

***You can read about the Champions League regulations on club-trained and association-trained players in their 2019/20 regulations.


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Green Shoots

Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham appear to be moving in the right direction, and the introduction of three players over the past month has helped with the upturn, though the general poor-quality finishing is still a hindrance.

Mourinho took over at Tottenham Hotspur on 19 November 2019 though, frankly, it feels like longer ago, such has been the number of matches and, therefore, press conferences in that time. He inherited the team at a low ebb, devoid of confidence, structure and, most importantly, a midfield.

Since taking over he has toyed with a few different formations – plenty of 4-2-3-1, a little bit of 5-3-2, before finally landing on 4-3-3; the rationale for each impacted by the opposition and, just as importantly, the availability of players.

He has been keen to point out that Ben Davies has been missing since his first game – a shame, because he had identified a niche role for him – and he had been without Hugo Lloris for his whole tenure until the win over Norwich. Since Mourinho took over, he has also lost Moussa Sissoko and Harry Kane, barely had Tanguy Ndombele, and has had Harry Winks in fits and starts.

The man whose introduction has made all the different in Giovani Lo Celso. He had only made two starts before Mourinho’s arrival, but since the end of December he has been a mainstay. His speed of thought, speed of movement and speed of action have led to a considerable upturn in Spurs’ attacking fluidity, particularly in the past fortnight, and his transfer is likely to be made permanent over the coming days.

In defence, Mourinho gave Japhet Tanganga an opportunity, and he has not let him down. Tanganga is a natural defender – a very good reader of the game, tigerish, and brave – like Michael Dawson but with natural athleticism. Tanganga has also showed surprising ability to carry the ball out from the back, particularly against Middlesbrough where he played right-back. He was not renowned for his ball-carrying in the Spurs Academy set-up but, equally, he has always been solid in possession and this shows what belief from a manager can do for a technically able player.

And finally, Hugo Lloris’ re-introduction is timely. Paulo Gazzaniga has done as well as one might expect a second-choice goalkeeper to do, including saving a penalty in what could turn out to be his final appearance of the season. But there is no denying that we have missed Lloris and that Gazzaniga’s ability to get down quickly to either side is not what one would hope for from a Premier League goalkeeper. That said, Mourinho was rightly quick to praise Gazzaniga after Lloris came back in, saying ‘To leave Paulo out hurts. The good thing is that he is such a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo that I think he also shared our happiness to have Hugo back as a friend.’

Spurs have now put together a four-game unbeaten run and will have Davies and Ndombele fit to start games soon. Things are certainly looking up if they could just find a source of regular goals. Lucas Moura has disappointed for much of the season, but particularly when asked to play up front. Hopefully a new signing will alleviate that issue or, if not, Mourinho’s next innovation will be finding a new striker from within the squad.


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