Tag Archives: Academy Prospects

Tom Carroll, the last of the loan rangers

n730l

With Tom Carroll’s departure to Swansea, an era of sorts comes to an end for Spurs.

Carroll was the last of a generation of homegrown youngsters whose development was largely outsourced to clubs in lower divisions. Now, only one remains at the club — in fairness, he’s not a bad player to have sticking around.

The “loan rangers” may ultimately have failed to make the grade at Spurs, but the ability to secure multimillion pound fees for homegrown talent is a testament to the club’s ability to produce footballers of value.

There is life after White Hart Lane, and it is a source of pride that few clubs — perhaps only Manchester United — can match Spurs in sheer numbers of graduates finding gainful employment in the professional game.

Since the 2011/12 season, Spurs have sold seven former academy stars for seven-figure sums:

Tom Carroll — £4.5m
Alex Pritchard — £8m
Ryan Mason — £13m
Andros Townsend — £12m
Jake Livermore — £8m
Steven Caulker — £8m
Jamie O’Hara — £5m

The combined total? £58.5m. That’s a remarkable return on the annual investment made in the academy (I don’t know the figure and would welcome any information). By way of comparison, Hotspur Way cost around £30m to build.

This ability to secure sizeable fees for youngsters has helped Spurs defy gravity while revenues have soared at other clubs, not that Spurs have necessarily spent the money well.

All them spent prolonged periods of their early careers on loan — these seven players had a combined 38 loan spells. For better or worse, these journeys through lower divisions helped shape who they became.

The Championship in particular is a tough proving ground, and strong performances by youngsters in that division will see their values soar. Does it necessarily make them better players? That’s another debate — and Mauricio Pochettino’s policy of keeping prime youngsters in house suggests he feels that it is not.

At the moment, Spurs have just one youngster on loan to a Championship side — Will Miller at Burton Albion. Luke McGee is (from what I’ve read at least) impressing at Peterborough in League One, while Ryan Loft has joined Stevenage in League Two. The other loans are the flotsam — Fede Fazio (who’s actually doing very well at Roma), Nabil Bentaleb (he’s also doing well at Schalke), and Clinton N’Jie.

The excellent @thfcacademy reported recently that Kyle Walker-Peters, the young right-back, will be brought into the first-team squad — and he made the bench for the FA Cup tie vs Aston Villa. A loan to League One has long been rumoured with clubs interested, but for the moment he’s not going anywhere. Both Cameron Carter-VIckers and Josh Onomah have played precious little football this season, but there are no indications that Pochettino is considering sending them out for the second half of the season to find regular playing time.

As Harry Winks has shown with his excellent displays this season, Pochettino’s approach can bear fruit. The point of the academy is to produce Spurs players, not act as an ATM. But for the club’s beancounters, the loan system has proven highly lucrative, and may be missed.

Of course, Spurs have shown that there are other ways to skin the cat. Wandering European youngsters such as Iago Falque and Nabil Bentaleb found homes in the Spurs academy, and departed for huge fees — Spurs netted a reported £5m million for Falque, and Schalke will pay a reported £17m for Bentaleb once he hits the required number of games (he’s played 21 so far, so he’s well on his way).

But for the likes of Carroll, Mason (a player I was immensely fond of) and Townsend, it was never about money so much as about playing for Spurs. They had their chances — aside from Pritchard — but couldn’t quite seize them. Sometimes you need to pinch yourself to believe Harry Kane is real — he’s a once in a generation blessing for Spurs, the type of “one of our own” hero that every set of supporters craves. The departure of so many other contemporaries highlights what a glorious exception to the rule he is.

For Carroll, Swansea is a chance to jump-start a career that has shown flashes but must have become deeply frustrating. Swansea seems a good fit — a club, likely to be playing Championship football next season, needing ball players to reconnect with a footballing philosophy lost amid the grotesque riches of the Premier League. There’s talent there, but evident shortcomings. £4.5m plus add-ons is about right.

But if he feels discouraged, he only needs to look at the opposition and the odds are there is a Spurs youngster in there, defying the “reject” label and making the most of their career. Dean Marney is still playing in the Premier League, so are Adam Smith and Charlie Daniels; Kevin Stewart has come remarkably close to proving Spurs wrong at Liverpool; the likes of Jordan Archer, Grant Ward and Massimo Luongo are all playing regularly in the Championship or League One.

Good luck at Swansea, Tommy C.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Is Mauricio Pochettino’s reputation for ‘giving the kids a chance’ deserved? A Q&A with @thfcacademy

josh-onomah

I was watching The Premier League Show on the BBC the other week and tweeting my praises about Mauricio Pochettino’s work at Spurs, when something unusual happened: dissent.

Understandably, this intervention caused a bit of a stir, but @thfcacademy stuck to his guns in the lively debate that followed on my timeline.

Sensing he may have one or two things to get off his chest, I got in touch with Ben, the man behind the @thfcacademy account, to ask if he wished to expand on his point in more detail. In 140 characters it is hard to make a counter-intuitive argument, but the more I thought about what Ben had said, the more I started to see his point of view.

So, I sent Ben a bunch of questions on the youth situation at Spurs, and he sent me back a bunch of answers. The full Q&A is below — dig in. It’s fascinating and covers a whole bunch of issues including playing time, loans, coaching and more. And yes, there’s a Marcus Edwards question in there too.

(For those who don’t know @thfcacademy, it’s a great account and consistently provides interesting news and perspective on youth issues. Give it a follow. And if you’re new to this blog, give me a follow too.)

A lot has been made of Tottenham’s reputation as a club that promotes talent. But this season and last, Harry Kane has been the only “homegrown” regular starter (and perhaps Danny Rose, depending on where you draw the line). Is Tottenham’s reputation justified?

I don’t think so. The fact that our talisman and two or three fringe squad members are academy products has created a distorted perception that our squad is full of them.

You created a bit of a stir on Twitter recently by suggesting that Mauricio Pochettino’s track record of bringing academy kids through at Southampton and Spurs may not be nearly as strong as many believe. What exactly did you mean by that?

He is a fantastic coach, there’s no doubt about that. His record at improving players, particularly British ones, is unrivalled. He gets a lot of praise for developing homegrown talent, and rightly so. But I think people struggle to differentiate/articulate between improving a first-team player and bringing through academy players. His record at the latter is underwhelming.

At Southampton, Shaw, Lallana & Ward-Prowse were already members of the first-team squad (by that I mean training with the seniors full-time *and* making semi-regular Premier League starts), they were considered genuine options, not time-wasting substitutes.

Kane, Bentaleb and Rose made their Premier League breakthroughs prior to Pochettino’s arrival. Did he improve them? Yes. Did they ‘break through’ under him? No.

Ryan Mason and Calum Chambers (both now at lesser clubs) are the two who have made the jump from their respective development squads to the first team under him. Two players in four years isn’t something to shout about.

Are there any specific players at Spurs, or Southampton, that you feel could have made the jump under Poch? Or is the broader issue that ultimately even these two clubs aren’t producing enough quality players?

Onomah and Winks would’ve been useful last season. Winks is a better player than Mason, as was evident in pre-season. I think there were moments throughout last season where Onomah’s crisp passing and dribbling would’ve helped the team too.

Whether accurate or not, is there a benefit in Pochettino’s reputation as a guy who “gives the kids a chance”, for example in attracting young talent to the club and incentivising those academy kids already on the books?

There is a definite belief throughout the academy that if you work hard and meet targets you will eventually be given a chance in the first-team, so yeah, that perception adds an extra bit of drive for academy boys.

It’s still quite early in the season, but are Harry Winks, Josh Onomah and Cameron Carter-Vickers playing enough football?

To put it simply, no. It’s great that they have the opportunity to learn from all the experience and knowledge at Spurs but there comes a point when they need to put it into practice or risk stalling as players.

Of all the signings this summer, the one that surprised me the most was Moussa Sissoko. The minutes he finds may well be at the expense of Onomah and Winks, which doesn’t sound ideal. Is there a risk that these two in particular get stuck, as so many kids at other clubs seem to be, in the vicious cycle of being too inexperienced to start, but not being able to gain that experience?

I think Sissoko gives the team a different option so I can understand the signing. But yeah, if you look at who is currently ahead of Onomah in the pecking order: Dele, Eriksen, Lamela, Sissoko, N’Koudou & Son, they’re all relatively young so it’s difficult to see when Onomah will get an opportunity.

It looks like the club have cleared the pathway for Winks, with only Dembele, Dier & Wanyama (possibly Dele & Eriksen too?) ahead of him in central midfield.

With Spurs challenging for the title and playing in the Champions League, every game seems huge at the moment. Is it just inevitable that the price of success is less youth development, or should Spurs be thinking long-term and continuing to prioritize it?

The academy players at Spurs are held in such high-regard I think it would be foolish not to prioritise bringing them through. I doubt Spurs will consistently be able to attract players who match the potential of the likes of Tashan Oakley-Boothe, Marcus Edwards and Oliver Skipp.

There appears to have been a change in policy on youth loans, with well-regarded youngsters being kept at Spurs rather than developing elsewhere. Listen to the likes of Kane and Mason, and they talk so positively about the loan experience in terms of their personal development. Are the current youngsters missing out?

I think every player should be treated differently. I don’t agree with the current philosophy of keeping all the A class talents in-house or Harry Redknapp’s philosophy of sending every single one of them anywhere and everywhere.

Every player is different. For example, there would be no point in sending Edwards to Wimbledon, but Kyle Walker-Peters would benefit hugely from a loan to MK Dons.

Karl Robinson at MK Dons sets his teams up in a similar style to Pochettino, I think it would be well worth the risk for KWP, or anyone else, possibly picking up some “bad habits” (Poch’s words not mine) under him with the learning experience of six months or a season in men’s football. He is too comfortable at U23 level, the remaining step in his development is to learn when it’s okay to dribble out of defence and when to play safe.

On the subject of Walker-Peters, while Carter-Vickers is now very much part of the first-team CB group and may now be ahead of Kevin Wimmer, KWP doesn’t seem to have made that step up yet to challenge Kieran Trippier. What’s your view on KWP?

He’s a fantastic prospect. He improved so much over the course of last season, developing into a more conventional full-back. Around January/February it was clear the U21 league was too easy for him, loans to Roda and Chesterfield were close but never finalised.

Since then it appears the lack of challenging football for him has hurt his game; he’s started this campaign in poor form and as a result has stopped training with the first-team on a regular basis.

I find, whenever Spurs U23s are playing, there are a lot of negative comments on Twitter about the job being done by Ugo Ehiogu. How fair is the criticism, or are fans guilty of applying first-team standards of scrutiny to a reserve-team coach?

The main objective of any youth coach is to improve and push the most talented players in the group, results aren’t important. But when you get to U23 level (in theory the penultimate step before senior football) part of that learning process has to be about winning and playing your part in a functional, organised team.

Last season his team was unbalanced and directionless. He played a number of players out of position, which can be valuable to individual development but should be done in the earlier stages of their careers.

This season the squad is so poor it would be unfair to blame him for results and performances. If you look at the teams he’s put out, I struggle to think of anything I would do differently. There are several players in that group who barely coped with U18 football.

Spurs lost U18 coach Kieran McKenna to Manchester United this summer. Is it hard to replace a guy like that, or do Spurs have a depth of youth coaching talent?

It’s not a big loss. McKenna was liked and respected by players and parents but there are plenty of coaches (internally and externally) who are capable of replacing him.

As fans, we desperately want to believe that all young talents will become regular starters and stars, but actually it is very rare. If you were a betting man, which of Winks, Onomah and CCV do you think is mostly likely to still be at Spurs and a regular starter age 25?

I’d guess Onomah and Winks will be regulars, Carter-Vickers will fall just short of that level.

And finally, the inevitable Marcus Edwards question. He’s clearly on the fast-track — is it realistic to expect that we may see him in the Premier League this season? And, jokes about Messi aside, how good can he be if he keeps his head screwed on?

I don’t think he has the stamina required to play for a Pochettino team yet, it’d be unrealistic to expect much from him over the next 12 months. He’s so talented, only his mentality or injuries will prevent him from becoming a star.

Thanks to Ben for answering my questions. You can follow him on Twitter here. For more Spurs chat, please give me a follow too.

Relative Age Effect: Patience pays off for Tottenham’s “young-but-not-that-young” outliers

androsryan2

Insert a “slow cookin'” pun here… From tottenhamhotspur.com via Google Images.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @spurs_report. It will be fun, I promise.

One of the more tedious parts of following football in the age of social media is clubs wishing their players “Happy Birthday”, an activity that has ticked up significantly post Yaya Toure and the birthday cake incident.

But over the summer, I was surprised by how many Spurs players were celebrating their birthdays, in particular our homegrown players.

I have an August birthday, so I’ve long taken an interest in what is called the “relative age effect”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Relative age effect is a bias against people born at certain times in the year when set against certain selection points, the most common of which in the UK is the standard school year running from September 1.*

Born in August, you could be almost a whole year younger than the people you are competing against for spots in football or rugby teams, which is obviously a huge disadvantage in terms physical and mental development. As Gladwell asserts in his book, people born earlier in the selection period (he studied NHL players) had a head start in terms of them making it as a pro. The numbers of pros born earlier in the selection period outweighed those born later. He concluded that those born earlier in the selection period were likely to be seen as relatively better than those born at the end, even if they were just developing at the exact same rate. This played out in giving them access to better coaching, more competitive teams, increased training time, and so forth, which then accelerates their talent.

Relative Age Effect is now something considered in football youth development circles, as this 2011 article in The Guardian illustrates. Interestingly, this piece quoted John McDermott, head of youth development at Spurs:

“At Tottenham we’ve introduced strategies to try and combat the bias [which include] putting the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds together, therefore a player moves up to the older group on his birthday. In that way he experiences being the youngest and eldest as the year progresses.”

“Tom Carroll, an outstanding prospect, trains regularly with our first team and is on loan at Leyton Orient [but] he couldn’t cope physically in matches with his own age group as he was a late developer and [had a] summer birthday. But he had outstanding perception, technique and aerobic capacity.”

“Of the [many] boys out on loan recently, Ryan Mason [Doncaster Rovers], Harry Kane and Carroll [Orient], Nathan Byrne [Brentford], Danny Rose [Bristol City], Jake Nicholson [MyPa], Kyle Walker [Aston Villa], and Andros Townsend [Millwall] are all summer babies.”

Four years on, it is clear that this strategy has paid dividends just from the names mentioned by McDermott.**

From the current Spurs senior squad, here is a list of players of various homegrown classifications — those you’d say either came through the academy or were developed at the club before going into the first-team. I’ve also listed their birth dates.

Kyle Walker: 28 May 1990
Danny Rose: 02 July 1990
Andros Townsend: 16 July 1991
Ryan Mason: 13 June 1991
Nabil Bentaleb: 24 November 1994
Tommy Carroll: 28 May 1992
Alex Pritchard: 03 May 1993
Harry Kane: 28 July 1993

It is quite a striking list. The outlier is Nabil Bentaleb, born in November, solidly in the first half of the selection period — France is on the same cycle as Britain. Of the others, four — Kane, Mason, Townsend and Rose — are in the final quarter of the selection period. Walker, Carroll and Pritchard are solidly in the second half.

Why is this so striking? Well, typically one would expect it to be the other way round — with one outlier born towards the end of the selection period, with most of the others born relatively earlier.

Looking through the dates of birth of Spurs current academy prospects, a more typical profile emerges.***

Of the development squad, nine out of 21 were born in second-half of the selection period. Three of those (Will Miller, Shayon Harrison and Dominic Ball) were born in the final quarter.

Out of the academy squads, five out of 26 were born in the second-half of the selection period. Just one — Joy Mukena — was in the final quarter of the selection period.

(The next closest is Samuel Shashoua, born 13 May, 1999, and I was tickled to read that he is from Chelsea and attended Harrow School — spiffy! I hope his career continues to develop and he brings a touch of the debonair to the Spurs midfield for years to come)

This got me wondering about how the other academies or crops of quality young players stack up. So I’ve spent a while Googling.

I will look at five teams, using information from club websites: Chelsea (the strongest youth teams for years), Man United (their website is really easy to analyze), Arsenal (for it is them), West Ham (once the power in youth development in London) and Southampton (everyone’s favourite feeder club).

Fom this data, you can see relative age effect playing out at the academy/development squad levels. If there was no bias, you’d expect the percentage of academy prospects born in second half of the year to hover about 50%. No club is close to that — Southampton are the only club to hit 30%. Likewise, without bias you’d expect about 25% of the prospects to be born from June to August. But no, Man Utd are highest at 15.4%, no-one else is above 10%.

While a small sample — just current squads at five clubs — my guess is you’ll see similar patterns emerge through other clubs and in previous years. Relative Age Effect is nothing new. My point is that, for Spurs to have 7 out of 8 of their current homegrown first-teamers be born in the second half of the year appears to be really rather unusual.****

Relative Age Effect doesn’t mean that, if you are born in August you are screwed. It just means you either have to have marginally more talent or develop relatively earlier in order to receive the same benefits of someone from earlier in the selection period. Someone like Gareth Bale no doubt transcended the bias due to his freakish natural athleticism. But this problem goes a long way back — Roy Keane was rejected by Brighton for being “too small”, while Alan Shearer famously was rejected by Newcastle as a youngster. They are both August birthdays.

What most of the Spurs young guns also have in common is the “young-but-not-that-young” tag — they are late bloomers by the standards of the English game. The likes of Mason, Pritchard, Townsend and Kane have all “done their time” in lower leagues before getting their chances at Spurs in their early 20s. They weren’t bursting onto the scene like West Ham’s Reece Oxford at the age of 16. Their talent has taken longer to develop.

I suspect that the age bias in the system may have had something to do with it. Spurs’ outliers were talented enough to survive the ruthless culls on their way up through the academy ranks, but they’ve had also to weather years as fringe prospects far from guaranteed contract extensions and chances of a first-team place.

Patience is such a rare commodity in football, but Spurs have a very tangible demonstration of its value. If the club is wondering whether or not a player is going to “make the grade” or whether he has reached the limit of his potential, the examples of our “young-but-not-that-young” outliers is instructive.

Ryan Mason by any measure should have been discarded by Spurs aged 23, but more by luck than judgement they stuck with him and he has turned out to be a useful player who I suspect will be a good first-team squad man for years to come. Likewise, the club was seemingly unsure whether to cash in on Andros Townsend this summer, or give him another year to progress into a genuinely useful Premier League winger, rather than the occasional talent he is now. He may have had enough chances by now, but maybe not.

It seems, based merely on the current youth intakes, that Spurs may have slipped back into the pack in terms of ratio of youngsters born outside peak points in the selection period. Not many summer babies, at least at the moment. However, I am sure John McDermott is continuing to keep an eye out for those like Tommy Carroll who’s struggle was primarily physicality, not footballing ability.

By far the biggest difference maker in elite sport is not when you are born, but how talented you are. But there will always be marginal talents, the Townsends and the Masons, who both struggle to convince but continue to intrigue. Spurs have some pretty clear examples of how giving them a little extra time may be beneficial.

Either way, it all makes me think that Spurs’ current crop of homegrown youngsters — a hugely likeable group of footballers it must be said — are more likely outliers than a new dawn in talent identification and development.

Big conclusion? We should enjoy them all the more for it.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @crg_yeah. It will be fun, I promise.

Notes

* Sept. 1 is the selection point for the purposes of this article, I believe the school system is the most relevant thing here, even though I believe different selection points are in place for some youth football. Also, some late August kids get to move into the year below, to great potential advantage.

** Nathan Byrne moved from Swindon to Wolves this summer for a seven-figure fee — so he is heading back up the ladder.

*** I started this article in mid-August, so one or two names may have left the academy lists since then. I’ve removed Aaron Lennon but first team stats for other teams may have changed.

**** Interestingly, the Southampton “diaspora” of talent that has long since left the South Coast is rather similar to Spurs. Here are their birth dates:

Gareth Bale: July 16
Theo Walcott: March 16
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: August 15
Adam Lallana: May 10
Luke Shaw: July 12
Callum Chambers: January 20

Callum Chambers is the exception — everyone else is from the second half of the selection period, with Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw all in the final quarter.

To dare is to do differently

Football - Italy v England - International Friendly - Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy - 31/3/15 Andros Townsend celebrates with Ryan Mason, Kyle Walker and Harry Kane after scoring the first goal for England Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine Livepic

Reuters via Google Images

On one of my endless car journeys this weekend as I move house, I tuned in for a moderately interesting discussion on the state of the English game on Radio 5Live involving Mark Lawrenson and Jermaine Jenas, which feels an unlikely sentence now I’ve written it.

Nevertheless, the BBC pundits were debating the travails of Manchester United in keeping David de Gea out of the clutches of Real Madrid, and it got to talking about why, despite all the money sloshing about the upper reaches of English football, our biggest clubs really aren’t quite as big as the Spanish clubs and couldn’t attract or keep the mega stars of world football. Obviously, there are many explanations for this, but Jenas noted that English clubs were behind in development of their own stars.

He didn’t expand as the conversation moved on, but it was a good point. What he meant was that, when you develop someone like Messi, Iniesta or Muller, you are much more likely to keep hold of them. They have an emotional attachment to the club, and are the most reliable building blocks for great teams as they are the least likely players to be swayed by money and move away. Obviously, they aren’t guaranteed to stay, but if they do it is more likely to be later in their careers when they want a new challenge.

Unsurprisingly, this conversation got me thinking about Spurs, and how we compare to other English clubs in the homegrown stakes.

Barcelona and Bayern are obviously the most famous clubs in terms of youth development, and their squads have a large number of homegrown players, supplemented with stars of the the world game. If any clubs feel like a model to follow, it is these two.

On the other hand, there were very few homegrown players of any classification on show among the biggest five English clubs this weekend.

Here is a look at the squads:

Manchester United: None in starting X1. On the bench, Andreas Pereira, a Brazilian who first moved to PSV and then to Man United aged 16. Sam Johnstone — a fully homegrown player who was due to go out on loan but was in the squad due to the chaotic goalkeeping situation at the club. Paddy McNair — a fully homegrown player.

Chelsea: John Terry in starting XI, no other homegrown players in matchday squad.

Arsenal: In starting XI, Francis Coquelin joined club at age of 17 from France. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were developed at Cardiff and Southampton respectively, and joined for large fees. On the bench, Kieran Gibbs is fully homegrown, while Theo Walcott and Callum Chambers were bought from Southampton for large fees.

Liverpool: In starting XI, Joe Gomez was bought from Charlton this summer for a large fee. Jordan Ibe was signed aged 16 from Wycombe Wanderers, after he’d already appeared 7 times for the Buckinghamshire club. None on bench.

Manchester City: Joe Hart was bought aged 18 (or maybe 19) from Shrewsbury for a modest fee, after he made more than 50 appearances for the Shropshire club. On the bench, Jason Denayer was brought over from Belgium aged 17 or 18, while Kelechi Iheanacho joined the club from Nigeria at the same age.

Whichever way you look at it, it is slim pickings. John Terry, like him or loathe him, appears very much the exception — he came through the youth system at Chelsea (via West Ham at a young age) and has been a stalwart for more than a decade. Joe Hart may not be a Manchester boy, and has had his ups and downs, but nevertheless he is part of the furniture at the Etihad now. Maybe Jordan Ibe becomes the next Liverpool legend, but you only have to look at the Raheem Sterling debacle to see how things can unfold for young prospects at Liverpool who don’t have Scouse DNA, for all that entails.

A fair number of the players have been purchased from overseas into the youth systems at a relatively late age — I presume this is a result of the change in rules regarding classification of homegrown players a while back. The success of this strategy is open to question — over the years, how many of these young guns drafted in at the age of 16 or 17 have made the grade and stayed long-term?

A fun football parlour game is to guess: Where is Frank Arnesen now? He wasn’t at Spurs long, but his record at Chelsea in the five years he was sporting director looks increasingly poor. None of the youth players he signed have amounted to much (I guess there is Nemanja Matic, eventually and expensively), and Chelsea have been abject in getting youth players into the first team, despite years of success in youth competitions. Gary Neville summed it up last season when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was “paraded like an exotic animal” to the media before getting a few minutes of Champions League action the following evening.

(Frank Arnesen, since leaving Chelsea in 2010, has been at the German basket case Hamburg, Metalist in Ukraine and now PAOK in Greece. My guess is, his reputation isn’t quite what it was within the game)

Arsenal’s record is better, or at least that is the perception. But is it really? Here are a few names from the 2010/2011 squad, that could be considered homegrown or were purchased directly into the youth teams:

Djourou, Song, Wilshere, Fabregas, Eboue, Denilson, Bendtner, Fabianski, Diaby, Gibbs, Vela, Mannone, Traoré, Frimpong.

It is quite a list! A parade of young imports, once the future of the club and the building blocks through the tough financial period of the early Emirates days, have been and gone. Just Wilshere and Gibbs remain, and Arsenal have produced no consistent first-teamers since then. You can argue that, for the huge fees received for Fabregas and Clichy, Arsenal’s strategy worked — but only if the strategy was purely financial, and not long-term team-building.

When did Manchester United last produce a regular first-term contributor? Jonny Evans I believe. Sure, James Wilson got a few games last season but is far from a regular, while Adnan Januzaj may or may not be a world-class player in the making. He’s an import into the academy in his late teens — a bit like Paul Pogba, now a world-class player at Juventus and football’s Mr Clickbait, and Gerard Pique, a stalwart for Barcelona ever since leaving and the partner of Shakira. The Da Silva twins are both out of the club now. It feels an awfully long way from the Class of 92.

Manchester City are linked with almost every young English prospect around, so desperate are they to hit homegrown quotas. They’ve produced no young players since the injection of the Abu Dhabi oil money. They don’t have a single Mancunian in their first team squad.

Liverpool meanwhile, now without Stevie Gerrard, have all of one Scouser in their first team squad for the Premier League this season: Jon Flanagan. Flanagan, 35 career appearances for the club, is the closest Liverpool have come to getting a local boy up through the ranks since Gerrard himself, all those years ago. After that? Anyone remember Jay Spearing? Neil Mellor? Again, it feels a long time since Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.

I should add, this isn’t a jingoistic point. There are plenty of foreign players who have come in, and become deeply attached to their clubs, like Thierry Henry did at Arsenal (yes, us Spurs fans can accept he was a great player now that he is long retired). You take Vincent Kompany, who wandered as a prodigy from Anderlecht to Hamburg, but who blossomed into a world-class player at Manchester City and found a home. Now, more than anyone, he is the pillar of the club and the connecting point for fans, and even has a Mancunian accent, amusingly.

Spurs stand very much in contrast.

The squad on Saturday featured a number of players of various homegrown classifications: Kyle Walker, Nabil Bentaleb, Our Lord and Saviour Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Tommy Carroll. Danny Rose, Alex Pritchard and Andros Townsend may all have made the squad if they were fit. Spurs are going very much all-in on youth at the moment, and as I noted recently, this is pretty risky and may not be a strategy our chairman has the required patience to pull off.

This doesn’t make Spurs better or worse in terms of “how you should do things”. Despite what Liverpool fans may think, there is no footballing “purity test” that somehow renders some clubs superior to others.

But when you look at the record of the Big Five (let’s face it, we are 6th by most measures), you can see why Spurs are thinking of going a different route. It’s the old Billy Beane line about the Oakland A’s front-office in the Moneyball movie — “We play like the Yankees in here, we’ll lose to the Yankees out there”. Until the new stadium is built, Spurs don’t have a hope of competing financially, so basic logic screams out: Be different.

It will be a losing road for a while. It will be a lonely road while Spurs sink out of the media spotlight that focuses in on the bigger-spending clubs. And it may be road to nowhere, given the immense vagaries in the development of human beings and ability to maximize potential.

But for the time being, as a Spurs fan I’ll take pride in seeing a fair number of local boys trotting out at the Lane, and also pulling on the England shirt with regularity.

Nabil Bentaleb: Tottenham’s next superstar

nabil

Last season, us Spurs fans revelled in the extraordinary transformation of Harry Kane into a mega star. As the new season nears, I believe another of our young core, Nabil Bentaleb, could be about to hit superstar status.

Looking back now, Kane’s development was as rapid as it was unexpected. Be honest now, how many of you will admit that you were worried at the start of last season over the prospect of Kane as the third choice striker in case either Roberto Soldado or Emmanuel Adebayor got injured?

Kane’s rise lit up what was otherwise a solid but unspectacular season. The jury is still out on whether Kane can repeat the trick, but personally I don’t think it was a fluke. Simply, I don’t think you can fluke a 30-goal season.

So dramatic was the Kane story, however, I wonder if it overshadowed another monumental event that took place through the course of last season, namely Bentaleb’s rapid growth.

A midfielder’s development is never going to be as sudden as that of a striker as there isn’t one single measure to gauge success like you can a striker with goals. But Bentaleb’s journey, in less than 18 months, from remote prospect to lynchpin at a Top 5 club, is pretty astounding in its own way and has few rivals in the English game at the moment.

I’ve been trying to think of recent comparisons. Jack Wilshire? He started with a bang but never really kicked on and has been slowed by injuries. Aaron Ramsey? Not as quick, and his breakout season was about goals anyway. I can’t think of any development of central midfielders at the Manchester clubs, Liverpool or Chelsea. Everton have Ross Barkley, but he is an attacking midfielder really, while Jack Rodwell is more typical of the path that young midfielders take – promise, a big transfer, lack of fulfilment, a move to Sunderland. My point is, what is happening with Bentaleb is RARE.

In his first half-season, Bentaleb proved that he had talent. Last season, he proved that he belonged as a Premier League midfielder. This season, my belief is that Bentaleb will prove that he has the potential to be a world-class midfielder.

Now, at this point any self-respecting blogger in 2015 would crack open the player radars and undertake a deep dive of the advanced stats to prove that Bentaleb is indeed the bastard child of Yaya Toure and Andrea Pirlo. I love the work of Spurs supporting stats guys like Michael Caley at CFC, James Yorke at Statsbomb and the people at Spurs Statsman, but sadly I don’t know where to even look for advanced stats, let alone gather them and draw any meaningful conclusions.

So, until I up my game, I’m stuck with the cognitive dissonance of old-style, say-what-you-see assessment of a player, and trying to sculpt the potentially conflicting conclusions into what is in all probability a subconsciously preconceived narrative. But for Bentaleb, and where Spurs sit at the moment with a young team and a manager like Mauricio Pochettino, I actually feel there is something to be gleaned from what can sometimes be dismissed as the “intangibles”.

I remember watching Bentaleb’s debut against Southampton, and the collective “Who?” from all Spurs fans bar Windy as he came off the bench with 40 minutes left to replace Mousa Dembele. But in the game, it was immediately apparent that he had something. His passing was very efficient and I don’t think he gave the ball away once. He seemed big and athletic, a real man, not scrawny like many prospects when they first appear. He appeared very calm, and didn’t shy away from involvement.

Bentaleb’s route into the Spurs first team is instructive. Unlike many coddled young wonderkids who populate academies, Bentaleb had to overcome rejection by his hometown club, Lille, before wandering to Mouscron in Belgium and then Tottenham in search of a place on the football ladder. Ask the likes of Alan Shearer what rejection at a pivotal age did for them: it can fuel a fire that burns for a whole career. Bentaleb himself has talked about the pleasure in gaining revenge.

Tim Sherwood’s repeated attempts to get credit for the emergence of Harry Kane have been extremely embarrassing, but no-one would begrudge Sherwood taking the credit for giving Bentaleb his chance. Ironically, the notion that Bentaleb was a Sherwood pet and consequent coldness from the White Hart Lane crowd became another thing that Bentaleb has had to overcome.

Bentaleb is, by every account, a beast in training. With typical hyperbole, Sherwood described Bentaleb as “training like every day was the last day of his life”, but this has been born out in every report and ITK account of how things play out at Hotspur Way on a daily basis. Reports that Deli Alli is going toe-to-toe with Bentaleb in the training stakes are hugely encouraging.

So why does this training attitude matter so much? It’s because in Pochettino, Spurs have a head coach who values training performance more highly that anything. Train well, and you will get the opportunities to play well. Bar Harry Kane, no-one has exemplified this simple philosophy more than Bentaleb.

In the quest to be just a little less Spursy, we need guys like Bentaleb

One of the joys of being a football fan in 2015 is being able to use social media to get access to players. Most players are, sensibly, conservative in what they put on Twitter, but even in limited interactions you get a glimpse of their personality. Harry Kane comes across as level-headed, polite but ambitious, even as his world has utterly transformed in the past 12 months. Ryan Mason appears to be a bit of a football obsessive — he was the one Spurs player tweeting about the Women’s World Cup, for example. Eric Dier comes across as wry and intelligent.

However, Bentaleb is my favourite Spurs tweeter — after every game, he does his #SoldiersNeverSurrender bit, and you can just feel that hunger for revenge bubbling away. In the quest to be just a little less Spursy, we need guys like Bentaleb.

This may be sorely overanalysing just a few tweets, I accept. But in sport, character matters — and in talent identification, character is both one the most important factors, and one of the hardest to assess.

I thought one of the most instructive games last season was the miserable defeat away to Manchester United. It was a dreadful showing — Pochettino was terribly slow to react to Louis van Gaal’s use of Fellaini, leaving Kyle Walker, Ryan Mason and Eric Dier horribly exposed. In this game, Bentaleb contributed to the mess by giving the ball away for a simple goal.

However, once Pochettino belatedly switched Bentaleb onto Fellaini, Spurs improved markedly. The game may have been all over, but still Spurs’ performance in the second half wasn’t too bad. They competed, they stuck at it, and avoided embarrassment. I was disappointed in getting so soundly beaten, and frustrated by Pochettino’s slow reaction, but overall philosophical — inevitably, with a young team, you are going to get matches like this.

The fact that Spurs recovered their poise in the second half, and that Bentaleb managed to draw the sting of a rampant Fellaini, I feel taught us more about the team and Bentaleb long-term than a bad 45 minutes did. Add this character to Bentaleb’s other assets — efficient passing, good ball retention, top-class athleticism and a wand of a left foot — and even an untrained eye such as mine can see that Spurs have something truly special to work with.

Going into the new season, Bentaleb is now the key man in the midfield. We await eagerly a further recruit to the Spurs midfield — but it is clear they are being signed to play with Bentaleb. Last season he had to prove to a new manager that he was a serious player and not just some political pawn in the game between Sherwood and Levy. Bentaleb saw off Capoue and Paulinho, again, and also Stambouli. This season, the path is clear: it’s now about proving not just that he belongs, but that he belongs at the top table.

Of course, as Bentaleb rises up in the footballing world, there may be issues ahead. He’s already been linked, albeit v loosely, with PSG and Barcelona. His contract negotiation felt prolonged and spilled into the public domain. We shouldn’t forget that, while he has come through the academy, he doesn’t have the same connection with the club as the likes of Kane and has seen how cold the world of football can be.

But with his new contract now signed and his status as one of the main men at Spurs, I feel confident in predicting that Bentaleb is going to have a huge season ahead, and us Spurs fans can revel in the glow of not one, but two, budding superstars.