In the 81st minute of Tottenham’s dismal Europa League defeat against Anderlecht on Thursday, Joshua Onomah trotted on in place of Andros Townsend.
Many fans on social media, myself included, welcomed Onomah’s introduction. Townsend, once again, had drifted through a game and offered no meaningful end-product. He had one shot at the end of the first half, which was wide, and from memory he didn’t create any chances. His presence shifted Erik Lamela to the left side, where he is less effective, and Townsend failed to offer sufficient defensive cover for Kieran Trippier, who endured another tricky Thursday night.
With Spurs down and showing little indication that they had any fight left in them, Onomah’s arrival seemed as much a statement by a visibly angry Mauricio Pochettino aimed at Townsend as it did a tactical move or part of a considered strategy to gradually ease Onomah into a first-team role. Still, Onomah became involved in the game and had one or two nice touches.
Meanwhile, Youri Tielemans, the FIFA/Football Manager wonderkid widely seen as the next Belgian prospect to be snapped up by a big European club, played an assured if quiet 90 minutes. He look technically excellent, though his impact on the game was limited. He was surpassed in midfield by the experienced Sebastian Defour and Leander “Clive” Dendoncker, a young defensive midfielder who was instrumental in Anderlecht seizing control of the game.
I couldn’t help but think of the comparison between Tielemans and Onomah. Nothing gets the teeth of English football fans gnashing like our inability to turn our talented youngsters into top-level performers. Spurs, rightly, receive praise for being better than most Premier League clubs at player development, but the Tielemans-Onomah comparison is a good illustration of how hard it can be.
Some basic facts. Tielemans and Onomah are both 18. They were born within two weeks of each other — Onomah on April 27, 1997, and Tielemans on May 7. Both are versatile midfielders. Onomah is an attacking midfielder who plays best behind a striker, but he can also play in the wider attacking midfield positions and, while it is early days, looks like he has the physical size to eventually play deeper. Tielemans is a central midfielder, who can play in a more advanced position like on Thursday, in a deeper role, or on the left side.
For club this season, Onomah has played nine minutes of competitive action for the first-team. He has also played one U21 game, going 90 minutes. Total: 99 minutes. *
In 2014/15, Onomah played in 17 U21 matches, and made one sub appearance (14 minutes) in the FA Cup. Total: 1,394 minutes.
In 2013/14, Onomah played in 3 U21 matches, for a total of 199 minutes.
Tielemans has played rather more. This season, he has appeared in 10 Jupiler League games and three times in the Europa League. totalling 920 minutes.
In 2014/15, Tielemans made 51 first-team appearances (including six in the Champions League), totalling 3,956 minutes.
In 2013/14, Tielemans made 35 first-team appearances, again playing in the Champions League, totalling 2,340 minutes.
In total, Tielemans has 7,216 minutes of first-team action for Anderlecht. He has played 93 times and scored 13 goals. By comparison, Onomah has just 23 minutes of first-team action for Spurs, or 1,692 minutes including U21 action.
That is a massive difference.
Sure, Onomah may be learning and improving all the time while he trains with Pochettino’s first-team squad. And yes, the Jupiler League may not be as strong as the Premier League (though that didn’t stop Anderlecht from giving Spurs a sound beating). But there is surely no substitute for actually playing — putting those things you learn into practice in a competitive match, no matter what level. For Onomah, 99 minutes by late October feels woefully short of what he would require.
Getting minutes for the first-team at Spurs is tough. Onomah is part of a clutch of players vying for three attacking midfield slots: Eriksen, Lamela, Son, Alli, Chadli, Dembele, Townsend, N’Jie and Pritchard (sadly injured). In the brutal, perma-crisis atmosphere of the Premier League, where you are only ever a few games away from being next for the sack, you can understand why even a manager like Pochettino is reluctant to give Onomah a chance ahead of more experienced options. There are only so many minutes you can set aside for development. At the moment, those minutes seem to be going to Clinton N’Jie.
A good comparison for Tielemans, in terms of getting good experience early in his career, is Christian Eriksen. Before the 2013/14 season when he joined Spurs, Eriksen played 157 times across four seasons for Ajax, totalling 11,654 minutes. Is there any wonder Eriksen arrived at Spurs, aged 21, looking like a complete player?
If Onomah isn’t getting playing time for the first team, and the U21 league isn’t providing sufficient opportunities, then he needs to be loaned out. Take Andros Townsend as an example of how this system can work: in five seasons before 2013/14, he played (with a couple of cup appearances for Spurs thrown in) a total of 118 games, for 9,061 minutes. That’s not as many minutes as Eriksen, and not at such a high level as Ajax, but then Townsend isn’t as good a player as Eriksen. Townsend returned to Spurs ready for his first-team role, and has had plenty of chances to stake a regular spot since then.
I’d add that ahead of Onomah in the Spurs pecking order is Dele Alli. Alli is just one year older than Onomah — he is also an April birthday — but is now a regular starter for Spurs and has played for England. Last season, Alli played 3,826 minutes for MK Dons, and the season before that he had 2,453 minutes.
If Onomah is going to get a chance, it is now. Son is injured for several more weeks, while Chadli and Pritchard are longer term absentees. N’Jie is more likely to be used to give Kane a breather up front, while Townsend is either in bad form or is showing that he is a limited player who has stalled out in terms of his development.
From what little I’ve seen of Onomah, and from everything I’ve read, he is about as good a prospect to come through the Spurs academy for a while. But we are very good at hyping prospects, so it is hard to know for sure.
Onomah may never be as good as Alli or Tielemans, and may be on a slower curve in terms of physical development. But, aged 18, he needs to be playing — and if it isn’t at Spurs, then there are plenty of Championship or League One clubs that would love to have him on loan.
It is time for the Joshua Onomah era begin, one way or another.
Or, to put it in Twitter-speak, #FreeOnomah.
Please follow me on Twitter for more random musing on Spurs and life. Handle is @spurs_report.
* All stats from the excellent TransferMarkt. Injury time not included from what I can make of it, so for example, Onomah played 12 minutes last night, but only nine minutes are accorded to him by the site. The site doesn’t have U18 data.