This is the first in a three-part series addressing the development of Spurs' young players. The next pieces will look at other possible methods of youth development.
When Harry Redknapp first took charge at Tottenham Hotspur, one of his boldest strokes was to eliminate the Tottenham reserve side and institute a policy of sending academy prospects out on lower league loans. In theory it made sense: competitive football was crucial to developing young players. But in practice, has it actually panned out?
We appear to be reaping the benefits of this policy, with several youth team players making the step up to the first team over the last few years. Andros Townsend, Ryan Mason, Harry Kane, Nabil Bentaleb, Danny Rose, and Tom Carroll have all featured in varying capacities over the past few seasons. But how much of a role have their loans played in their development?
Surprisingly, despite their success at Spurs, almost every single lower league loan these players have gone on have been total failures.
Ryan Mason, now 23, is coming off a season on loan to League One's Swindon Town. He did tolerably well, but by no means set the league on fire. Before that he had forgettable spells at Lorient, Millwall, and Doncaster. Yet in only three matches in the Premier League, he's shown he's perfectly capable of competing against some of the best talent in the world. How does one go from being only ok for Swindon to excellent for Tottenham Hotspur seemingly overnight? Did these loan spells help him finally reach his potential, or are they are the reason he's had to wait til he's already 23 before getting his chance to show what he can do?
If Mauricio Pochettino hadn't seen something he liked in Mason during pre-season, Mason would likely have continued getting loans until some other side decided to take him off our hands for good, just like his fellow academy star Jonathan Obika. Obika had been on eleven (11!) loans since 2009 before finally being sold to Swindon for good this summer. Obika was absolutely dominant at every youth level for Spurs, but somewhere in his development he either failed to pick up the skills needed to turn into a Premier League player, or never had the opportunity to show he had the skills all along.
Obika is not alone in suffering this misfortune. Arguably all of our academy players, even the ones who are finally getting a chance with Spurs, have had their development stunted by constant lower league loans.
The first major problem using lower league teams to develop our players is a major clash of incentives. Spurs' goal is to develop the player into a potential first team player. The loan club's goal is to win matches. Too often these goals are in direct conflict.
When a player like Harry Kane is loaned to Millwall, he must perform well week in and week out in order to be afforded a place in the team. That's because Millwall is its own club, fighting for its place in its respective league and either attempting to fend off relegation or gain promotion. When a club like this takes a player on loan, they're not looking to provide a stepping stone to help Kane along in his career, they're looking for a player who can contribute immediately and help them achieve their goals for the season.
If Kane misses a couple of sitters, there is no incentive for the manager to continue playing him up front. A manager who doesn't get results is a manager who is not long for his position, so the manager has to play someone who will bang in goals for his team, not some youngster the club doesn't even own who won't be with the club in two or three months' time. If Harry Kane fails there's no consequences for Millwall, as they have no stake in his future.
We send these players on loan at an age in their careers that is crucial for their development, yet the people directly responsible for their training and playing time have no vested interest in cultivating their future. And if the playeris marginalized for failing to deliver immediately, as they so often do at such a young age, how much better would their time be spent training back home?
Out on loan, not only is the player failing to grow into a player for Tottenham's future, he's being molded into a player for the loan club's present. Too often players are forced to played out of position or in different tactical set up to suit the needs of the loan club. Tom Carroll was used frequently in the hole or as a more defensive midfielder in his time on loan at Queens Park Rangers last year. Even when he was played in the right position, QPR seemed to have no idea what to do with a possession-recycling passing midfielder. The style of play demanded by these other clubs are often in tension with the style of play the player is not only most suited to play, but more importantly, needs to play in order to have a future with Spurs.
Andros Townsend spent his entire youth career as a promising left winger. In a few months at a QPR side heading toward relegation, he was turned into a right-sided forward and urge to cut inside and shoot. In a team bereft of creativity and match-winners, Townsend was encouraged to play hero-ball every time he came into possession. If nobody else is capable of doing anything, having someone dribble eight guys and take a shot is better than nothing. This spell was considered a massive success for Townsend and QPR, but Spurs have spent the last year struggling to untrain those bad habits because they have no place in Spurs' team. Meanwhile we could really use a left winger.
Likewise, Danny Rose had a successful season on loan at Sunderland where he was given the freedom of their left flank to bomb up and down the pitch. But when he came back to Spurs, we found his positioning and defensive IQ hadn't been developed at all. The skills that were such a success at Sunderland had nothing in common with the skills he needed to succeed at Spurs. Only now that he's being properly trained by the club is he starting to develop into an excellent player.
The final curse of the loan system is it causes players to miss out on opportunity back home. Last season under Tim Sherwood, Tom Carroll had his chance to be the ball-playing central midfielder for this club that many of us have hoped he could become. That is, he would have, had he not been busy being misused at QPR. In his absence, 19 year-old Nabil Bentaleb--a player who has never spent a single minute out on loan--got the chance instead. After years training with the Spurs academy and developing the style of play Spurs want to play, he proved more than capable of slotting into the first team.
Similarly, Danny Rose was headed towards a career as a lower league winger when the injury klaxon sounded and he had to step in at left back. He's now on the fringes of the England team. Harry Kane and Ryan Mason have been able to take their chances just because they were here when we needed them. Meanwhile Ryan Fredericks is out on loan at Middlesbrough while we're suffering a right-back crisis. Could he too have stepped up to the occasion? We'll possibly never know.
Even when loan spells are a success, until a player shows they can do it at Tottenham Hotspur, there's the sense that they can't do it at all. And it's not just Spurs. Arguably no club has turned a series of loan spells into a future with the first team. Even someone as good as Romelu Lukaku, a player who was absolutely incredible on two separate Premier League loans. But despite his obvious ability, he never showed it in a Chelsea shirt, and the club felt it was less risky bringing in someone else than handing him a first team role.
At precisely none of their loans have Townsend, Mason, or Kane been an unqualified success, and in most cases the experience has been a total failure. Where they have succeeded, that success has been as much of a hindrance as a help to their Spurs future. In fact Steven Caulker, the most successful Spurs starlet we've had on loan, a man who received plaudits everywhere he went in four straight seasons of loan triumphs, is now mired in his second straight relegation fight and giving the club no regrets about having moved him on. Would he have had a future here if he'd spent a little more time at home?
Meanwhile the players who are back home and have had time to develop at Spurs with the academy and train regularly with the first team, are finally turning into possible options for the future. And perhaps becoming the players they could have been all along had they not wasted years learning bad habits under dozens of different coaches with different philosophies. While there's no doubt value in fighting for your place and playing competitive fixtures, having that experience should be part of a player's development, not in place of it.