Once upon a time, Tottenham Hotspur had another manager who would start youngsters in the early rounds of the League and FA Cups. Harry Redknapp notoriously didn’t give a toss about either domestic cup unless (until?) Spurs made the quarter finals.
Redknapp was known for taking the dregs of the reserve team, usually a hodge-podge of washed-up players and recent academy graduates, and throwing them to the wolves against lower-league competition. If they won, great! If they didn’t win, who cares, it was just an early round cup match, one less competition to worry about, no big loss.
On Wednesday, Tottenham started a highly rotated team in the EFL Cup against Gillingham that included four academy graduates. By the end of the match he had given first team debuts to three players and full debuts to two more. Only two players in the starting 11 – Michel Vorm and Kieran Trippier – were older than 24. In the process, Spurs gave most of their first choice 11 a good rest, and also gave a peek into what the future of Tottenham Hotspur might look like. Based on this match, a 5-0 thumping, the future looks pretty bright.
There was a big difference between what we saw Wednesday at White Hart Lane against Gillingham and what we used to see from Harry Redknapp when he’d “play the kids.” Sometimes the scores under both managers were blowouts, but the difference came both in tone and in execution. Like Redknapp, Mauricio Pochettino gave either first team or full debuts to five different players. Unlike Redknapp, you got the impression that not only had Pochettino considered his team selection carefully, he also expected his team of young players to win because of, not in spite of, their abilities.
Midfielder Harry Winks was given his first start with Spurs’ first team along with English-American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Both of them are highly rated by the Tottenham coaching staff, and their selection in the team was not entirely surprising. Pochettino rates both of them highly and considers them future league starters.
There were also first team debuts in substitute roles for winger Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, defender/defensive midfielder Anton Walkes, and superstar-in-watiting Marcus “Messi with an Afro” Edwards. Tom Carroll and Josh Onomah both started the match, and it was the first time we’ve seen Kevin Wimmer all season.
The end result was a thorough pounding, a highly entertaining match that Spurs dominated from the opening kick. That such a dominating performance included the promising academy graduates made it even better, because far from being awed by the occasion, this squad played with familiarity and precision. They looked like they belonged there.
Whereas under Redknapp an early cup tie often felt more like an excuse to throw the youth players a bone, it felt like the opposite here. All of the new players took the match extremely seriously, and comported themselves well. (N’Koudou looked pretty raw, but he can be forgiven in part because he hasn’t had two years to train under Pochettino’s system the way the others have). Watching them play, you had absolutely no doubt that these young players had busted their butts all week leading up to this match, knowing that only a solid week of training would get them into the side against Gillingham.
But more than that, it was clear that Pochettino had a handle on these players. He knows them. He understands their strengths, their weaknesses, what they can and can’t do. They were put into positions where they had every opportunity to succeed, and they did, pulling off a fantastic team performance and putting the Gills to the sword.
Oh sure, it was only Gillingham and the team had a number of first team players that had important roles. Christian Eriksen scored a brace, Vincent Janssen put in a yeoman’s effort at center forward, and Erik Lamela was exceptional again today. But it was the youngsters like Edwards who really stole the show.
Edwards is player who has been compared with a young Leo Messi, and he fired a laser beam of a shot at Gillingham’s goal in the waning moments that reminded me an awful lot of the Barca superstar. Josh Onomah got his first career Spurs first team goal today, a huge moment for him. Winks put in a composed performance in midfield beside Carroll, good enough that we might expect him to make more Premier League benches in future weeks. 18-year old Carter-Vickers looked solid at the back beside Kevin Wimmer.
This, more than anything else tells me what kind of a manager Spurs have in Mauricio Pochettino. Yes, his primary concern is with the first team, and rightly so, but he’s still got one eye on the future, and is quietly nurturing the next generation of Tottenham Hotspur stars.
There was a tweet that went around of Pochettino with his arm around Edwards just before he was substituted on that sums up in a single image what I feel about Pochettino and the way he treats his young charges. Yes, he played them tonight, much like how Redknapp would. But more than that, he developed them, in ways that Redknapp never seemed interested in doing.