This article is the second in a three-part series where Cartilage Free Captain writers examine the topic of youth development at Tottenham Hotspur. In part 1, Ben Daniels explained why the lower-level loan system is ineffective. Today's post looks at a possible new approach. Another alternative approach will be posted tomorrow.
Across the last piece on the subject, my fellow writer Ben Daniels has very eloquently captured some of the problems with the system of loaning down the football league that Spurs have utilized for its youngsters in recent years. Lack of opportunities and clashing styles have meant that lower-league spells have been pretty unproductive for naturally gifted players such as Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Ryan Mason and, in this site's view, has led to wasted years for all of them.
The depth and fullness of the arguments put forward already mean that it won't be necessary to unpack them any more at length. Instead, I'd like to put forward my own suggestion for an alternative and more productive approach to youth development: that of much higher levels of internal development and opportunities to play.
More on Spurs' youth development:
More on Spurs' youth development:
Tim Sherwood is not a very good football manager. His view on tactics could most politely be described as ‘sideways' (and less politely described as ‘inept'), his approach to man-management frankly bizarre, and his press manner downright embarrassing. However, Sherwood is very, very good at one aspect of running the affairs of a football club, and it is this one redeeming trait that has given him something of a legacy at the club – demonstrably, he is very good at developing youngsters. If it weren't his chaotic and unpleasant tenure at the end of last season, it is highly uncertain that Harry Kane and Nabil Bentaleb, both now first team players, would have got a proper shot in the Premier League with Tottenham. He has also had a hand in bringing up current squad members including Ryan Mason and Danny Rose, and worked extensively with potential future fixtures such as Tom Carroll and Milos Veljkovic to get them to the stages they're currently at.
Why is Tim Sherwood so proficient at youth development? The answer, I feel, is because as a former U21 manager Tim is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and do a lot of the hard work himself.
In the past, Sherwood has spoken critically of the very same policy of repeated loans to lower leagues that we've spent the past couple of pieces taking apart. One might be fine to give youngsters exposure to competitive minutes, sure, but Tim believes that once a player has ‘ticked that box', the manager should put time and effort into preparing them within the familiarity of their parent club to eventually work their way into the first team. This was the approach taken with Harry Kane last season – the young forward was not given a loan for the first half of last term, simply training in and around the first team and getting ready for his big shot. Most would see this as a wasted half-season. However, when Kane was finally thrown into the picture months later, he slotted in almost seamlessly, bagging three goals in three games and impressing with his clinical finishing and decent movement.
This, I feel, should be the template for the development of Spurs' brighter prospects. Past a certain age, youngsters should stop being farmed out to indifferent lower sides and be put on to a concerted and carefully-planned pathway to the first team. U21 games will help them to build familiarity and chemistry with their future teammates, and the manager should closely monitor their progression as well as also allowing them to train with the seniors, so that they can learn from established pros and receive direct coaching advice from the only figure who, at the end of the day, should matter to them. Eventually, they should be graduated up to cup ties and Europa starts, and finally at opportune moments they should be given chances at first team play.
This approach is certainly a risky one, and it requires a manager with a certain boldness and firm belief in his own convictions. Sherwood took an unbelieveable amount of flak for playing Bentaleb so frequently in the heart of midfield last term; but the experience was invaluable and the Algerian youngster made huge strides forward week to week. The same has happened with Ryan Mason this year since Pochettino was brave enough to start him in the North London derby.
While at Southampton, Spurs' Argentinean manager showed exactly this same boldness in his use of starlets such as Nathaniel Clyne, Callum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw (picking up the torch from another manager with a great outlook on youth development, Nigel Adkins). Two of those players sold for outrageous sums this summer, and the other two are now undroppable when fit. All contributed to a very strong season for the Saints last year. Southampton are one of many clubs both in England and abroad who buy into the policy of ‘if they're good enough, they're old enough', and have reaped vast financial and on-pitch benefits of it when combining it with a clever transfer policy.
Developing youngsters, in my view, is a matter of making them feel at home in their home surroundings and trusting them to contribute rather than coddling them. There is simply no substitute for extensive internal development work within the parent club, and I hope Pochettino continues to demonstrate that with his handling of Tottenham's best prospects.