I need to tell you all something. Something that I've been trying to suppress for weeks now. I hate Ryan Mason. And not the sort of rational(ish) hate that some of our writers have for certain other diminutive midfielders, but the sort of hate that is unfounded in logic and reason. It's not a blood-curdling hate, the kind that makes your skin prickle at the mere mention of his name, but it is the kind of hatred that makes me shake my head in frustration at nothing more than Mason's existence.
Before we go any further, let me clear the air a bit. Mason is good. In fact, if his three performances in the Premier League this season are anything to go on, he's probably very good. Against Arsenal I watched him do what I perceived to be essentially nothing. Then, upon re-watching the match, I saw Mason pressing everywhere. He made short, quick passes that relieved the pressure on his defense and allowed Tottenham Hotspur to counter quickly. It was exactly what Spurs needed.
Then, against Manchester City, I watched Mason play an entirely different role. He got "stuck in", challenging City's more experienced midfielders, helping out immensely in a match where his partner in midfield, Etienne Capoue, looked hopelessly lost. He also made excellent runs to get into goal scoring positions and almost found himself on the score sheet.
All in all, in his brief time starting for Spurs, Mason has proved that his an adept all-around midfielder. His comfort on the ball and ability to defend make him similar to a lot of Tottenham's young midfield talent. And yet, I can't help but hate him.
Perhaps it's partly because, at 23 years old, Mason isn't exactly a prospect anymore. I'm all for giving minutes to young players, but Mason is only a year younger than Benjamin Stambouli, a few months younger than Lewis Holtby, and is older than Christian Eriksen, Tom Carroll, and Nabil Bentaleb. Yet Mason, a player with considerably less first-team and top-flight experience than all those players finds himself starting at the heart of Spurs midfield. Now, certainly, not all those players play the same position as Mason, but I find it especially galling that Mason plays over Bentaleb (and if he were not on loan, Carroll).
However, it is not as though manager Mauricio Pochettino has misplaced his trust in Mason. Mason has hardly put a foot wrong of late. Meanwhile, Bentaleb and Stambouli have had a more up-and-down start to the season. To me, the soon-to-be 20-year old Bentaleb should be getting the lion's share of the minutes in midfield. Despite being labelled as "Tim Sherwood's golden boy," the Algerian has shown over the last 10 months that he belongs in a midfield in the Premier League. It's my firm belief that Tottenham would be best served continuing to play Bentaleb in the Premier League and continuing to allow him to develop.
Maybe it's also because I just don't think Mason is up to snuff. I don't know how I could possibly reach that opinion based on the performances I've seen from him, but anything is possible. Mousa Dembele is vastly more experienced than Mason and has a great track record in the Premier League. Paulinho is, at least theoretically, a good player and is, in actuality, a Brazilian international. Stambouli played a central role for a team that won a Ligue 1 title a few season ago and has been playing in midfield in a rather underrated league since he was 20.
Each of the above players is better than Mason – or, in Paulinho's case, theoretically better. Indeed, of the players who have played in the pivot this season, Mason probably has some of the worst stats, at least offensively. This can obviously be chalked up to the quality of opposition Mason has been up against and the tactics Pochettino has employed against them. I do worry, however, about just how Mason will when more onus is put on him to create and pick the lock of the opposition's defense. Will he display the sort of incisive passing that is so key in the role he plays? The type of passing that I believe Bentaleb possesses? Part of me hopes not.
Finally, I hate Ryan Mason because this cannot last. I always feel the need to knock on wood when talking about Mason, because any conversation about his skills must be tempered with the phrase "when he's healthy." The reason it's taken Mason so long to rise to prominence is unquestionably his injury history. Too many of Mason's loan stints have been cut short or marred by injury. Watching his good performances make me a bit queasy as though the other shoe is poised on the precipice, waiting to drop.
Young players have overcome injury checkered injury histories before. Gareth Bale was oft-injured in his early days at Tottenham Hotspur, but towards the end he put together, as you no doubt recall, a marvelous run of both form and fitness. It's not too outside the realm of possibility that Mason was just mismanaged at other clubs or suffered from the brutality of the style of play in the lower leagues. Now, firmly entrenched in the Tottenham squad, there is reason to hope that Mason can stay fit for long periods of time. But that's not going to stop me from knocking on every piece of wood I can find.
So, there it is. I've laid it all out for you. I hate Ryan Mason. I hate him because he's stunting the development of players who could be world class someday. I hate him because he's not playing great, but playing well enough to keep other better players off the pitch. I hate him because he cannot keep up this run of form, not with his injury history. Most of all, though, I hate him because Tottenham need Ryan Mason. On any other team challenging at the top of the table, a young academy player being in the first team would be a luxury, but, for Spurs, Mason's performances are a necessity. Depending on a 23 year old with almost no first-team experience is a recipe for heartbreak and disappointment and I, quite frankly, can't handle much more of that.