Cartilage Free Captain is again reviewing and ranking the top 15 youth prospects at Tottenham Hotspur to see which players have the best potential to follow players like Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Andros Townsend, and Nabil Bentaleb into the Tottenham first team. The rules for inclusion are as follows:
- The player had to be 21 or under on January 1, 2015
- The player cannot have seen significant match time with Tottenham's first team
Next on our list is 22 year old creative midfielder Alex Pritchard.
Who is he?
Alex Pritchard is ready to play at White Hart Lane. He has spent the last three seasons out on loan, twice in League 1 with Peterborough and Swindon Town, and then last season with a jump up to Brentford in the Championship. Playing in the stats capital of England, Pritchard appeared to make the leap from prospect to player. He took the reins of one of the league's best attacks and impressed every observer along the way. His coach Mark Warburton recognized his young midfielder was not long for the Championship and backed him to "grace White Hart Lane" for years to come. All that remains for Pritchard now is to start playing at the top level.
He is expected to sign a new long-term contract and has been reported to be in Mauricio Pochettino's plans for the current season. With most of the players in this series, the story is potential. If Marcus Edwards can maintain the trajectory his U21 performances project... If Cameron Carter-Vickers' international success can be translated to the big stage in the league... and so on. Pritchard, although he has question marks in his game like most any other 22-year-old, is much closer to a finished product. He has already done enough that he should be expected to perform capably in the Premier League this year. The future is now.
What can he do?
Pritchard is not a large human, but he makes himself the center of his team's attacking gravity on the football pitch. Highly technically skilled and blessed with elite awareness both on and off the ball, Pritchard has all the tools of the classic playmaker.
Last year he did this in a football game:
Pritchard has found ways to use his technical skill to confound bigger opponents, and you can see from the release on this pass the way his vision and awareness can create chances out of unremarkable, even pressured possession.
Now, despite doing amazing things, Pritchard's top line numbers at Brentford were much more good than great. He scored 9 non-penalty goals and assisted 7 in about 3800 minutes. His 138 non-penalty shots and 115 shot assists are big, bright numbers, but for the most part Pritchard does his sniping from range, with over 100 shot attempts from outside the box. Those goals scored and assisted numbers match pretty closely his expected goals statistics, which run at about 7 xG and 9 xA. Those are fine numbers, but a whole bunch of guys who are not expected to be good Premier League players next year managed similar production.
Pritchard's brilliance shows up in his danger zone passing. Completing passes in and around the danger zone, the region in the center of the box from which most goals are scored, significantly improves the outcomes of shots attempted on that possession. These passes may not immediately assist shots or goals, but they are clearly valuable attacking actions.
(I have thought of danger zone passing as the "Eden Hazard stat," a number that allows us to measure the greatness of a player whose shot and shot-assist numbers do not stand out particularly.)
Alex Pritchard was the king of danger zone passing in the Championship last year.
Among midfielders, he was lapping the pack. Well behind him sit quality players like Derby County's Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, promoted playmakers Wes Hoolahan, Nathan Redmond and Matt Ritchie, as well as his teammate Jota who may be expected to pick up the slack for the Bees this season. (The presence of multiple Brentford and Derby County players high on the list also reflects the quality, progressive football played at both clubs.)
When people talk about how Pritchard ran the Brentford attack, this is the sort of thing they're talking about. He played the passes that got dangerous possession going, over and over, and he did so more consistently than any other creative midfielder in the league.
Where can he go?
Hopefully off the training table, and soon. Pritchard sprained his ankle playing for the England U21s and he has yet to return to full training with Tottenham. This is disappointing, as Pritchard has shown so much potential but also needed to learn how to play within Pochettino's complex pressing system. In all likelihood, however, this injury has merely delayed Pritchard's season, not stunted it. He should be fully within the club's plans and ready to play major second-team minutes as soon as he can return to full fitness.
When he does, Pritchard will probably be Christian Eriksen's understudy. Like Eriksen, Pritchard has shown the ability to make plays either from a central position behind the striker or as a wide midfielder cutting inside. About two-thirds of his minutes came as a #10, and the other third as a wide creator. This flexibility will make it easier to find time for Pritchard on a large Tottenham squad. He should be a fixture on the Europa and Cup squads, with opportunities to join the first team coming as injuries inevitably hit. This is Pritchard's year to prove that he can be a Tottenham Hotspur player for many seasons to come, and I expect he will seize the opportunity.