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Tottenham is not maximizing the value of its youth academy prospects

From Noni Madueke to Dilan Markanday, Spurs have had some struggles in recent years in their youth academy.

Tottenham Hotspur U23 v Crystal Palace U23: Premier League 2 Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

When we think about Tottenham Hotspur’s struggles in recent seasons, you can point to a variety of reasons for the club’s lack of domestic success in recent seasons. Since the 2016-17 season where the club finished runners up in the league with 86 points, Spurs’ points total at the end of every season has fallen off a cliff: 77 [2017-18], 71 [2018-19], 59(!) [2019-20] and 62 [2020-21].

Fortunately, the future looks bright for the remainder of this season with Antonio Conte in charge, but Spurs’ downfall has been due to a combination of factors — Spurs’ struggles in the transfer windows, non-performing & expensive players, a lack of clear direction from the board, and uninspiring managerial appointments since the departure of Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019. That “painful rebuild” the Argentine kept talking about is still happening three years later even with a top manager like Conte in place and Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici brought in to transform the on-field product. It is early days, of course, for Conte and Paratici, but the early returns have provided a ton of confidence for Spurs.

Spurs’ academy, and specifically how they recruit, develop, and promote players has also come under a lot of criticism in recent years. Ironically, many of Spurs’ issues from the last few seasons could have been resolved or the burden reduced drastically by utilizing their youth academy more.

Take Harry Kane for example — there may not be a better striker and finisher in the entire world than Kane, who has been with the club since 2004. Kane would cost in the range of $100-150 million depending on the club and the circumstances of the transfer window. By producing Kane, Spurs have had the chance to use that money elsewhere. It is a simple strategy of course (though not very easy to execute), but having a productive youth academy is all about getting good returns on your investments, and the way the club dealt with Kane, which included numerous loans and first team football chances, helped him develop into the world-class player that he is today.

Just look at Chelsea — no club has been more productive in their development and progression in the youth level than Cobham, where Chelsea’s youth academy and training center is located. In comparison to Spurs in the past decade or so, Chelsea have become a) heavily reliant on loaning out their youth players with the intention of either increasing their market value or b) getting their prospects important professional match minutes to improve their experience before coming into the first team. Players that fall under category A include Palace’s Conor Gallagher and Southampton’s Armando Broja. Players that fall under category B have included players such as Reece James and Tammy Abraham.

For players that have come through Chelsea’s program, the avenue — or even multiple avenues — to first-team football has become so abundantly clear over the years. However, with Spurs, the club has struggled to adjust and cope, and in that lies the problem that has plagued Spurs with so many of their most talented youth players in recent years.

When we look at many of Spurs’ most recent prospects that have left the club, they have ultimately left because that they felt their long-term footballing interests were better served elsewhere. And this falls entirely on Spurs and their lack of recognition that they need to allow players who have played their way out of the academy to go out on loan.

Keanan Bennetts, Noni Madueke, Marcus Edwards, among others, eventually moved away from Spurs for to a variety of reasons. However, the root issue for all is that they did not see a viable route to first-team minutes with Spurs. And rather than withering away playing for Spurs’ developmental teams (U18, U23, etc.), they decided to bet on themselves and pursue moves away in hopes of gaining first team minutes. It has not panned out so well for Bennetts, but Madueke and Edwards have both been success stories in their moves, as Madueke has become a mainstay for PSV and Edwards has recently moved up in club stature from Vitória de Guimarães to Sporting in Portugal.

But as we think of Spurs’ prospects in more recent memory, the club’s handling of many academy players is concerning and provides for a significant and underrated worry going forward. It is not fair to expect every player that comes through the academy to go on and make it through to play for Spurs’ first team. But the club have failed with quite a few players in recent memory, most notably Dennis Cirkin, Dilan Markanday and even Eliot Thorpe. All three players are no longer with Spurs due to their perception that they lacked a future with the club. Each of these players rejected contract extensions and opted to wind down their contracts, deciding to utilize the main power that players do have by betting on themselves.

Ultimately, Spurs are not serving players within their youth academy and giving them enough opportunities to succeed. Cirkin, Markanday and Thorpe were being held back at Spurs and rather than playing for the academy sides, they all should have been given loans to prove themselves against better competition and in different environments. There is no purpose keeping players to play at the same level if they are showcasing that they are superior than the level they were playing at. There is a reason Spurs’ U23 squad has been so consistently good for awhile, with the club having options like Markanday, Nile John, Jack Clarke (more on him later), Alfie Devine and even Dane Scarlett — leading me to my next point.

Perhaps Spurs are doing a disservice with Devine and Scarlett. Considering Scarlett featured earlier in the season for Spurs under Nuno Espírito Santo, Scarlett — while not having the most prolific season for the U23s — is nearing a point where he may be better suited getting game time at a League One or League Two side to continue his progression. Devine, arguably Spurs’ best academy talent, looks close to being able to contribute at the professional level, but loan spells at a Championship club could give him that next test that he is deserving and likely more than capable of doing.

Now, one will note that Spurs have done a good job at bringing players through. Kane, Oliver Skipp, Harry Winks and Japhet Tanganga have all come through the ranks, but the process I mentioned before goes beyond just bringing players through to the first team. It means utilizing the youth academy in a more versatile way where better assessments can be made of the academy players and the club can profit from their development, regardless if they make it in the first team at Spurs or not.

In the Amazon: All or Nothing documentary, it was shown just how much focus has gone into the continuous development of Spurs’ youth program. From the creation of Hotspur Way to the improved players coming through the door, Spurs’ academy is certainly far better and more attractive to younger, aspiring footballers in comparison to years past. But there’s still work to be done.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine and his staff preferred young players to stay and train with the club. A good idea in building team morale and improving competition in the squad, it ultimately led to the staggered developments of many players who have since gone elsewhere. One only has to look at a player like Kyle Walker-Peters, now playing quite well for Southampton, to find an example of a Pochettino-era player who saw his development grossly mishandled. Providing Walker-Peters with the loan opportunities he was deserving of could have saved Spurs money as well, given that they paid nearly $15 million a few years later for Matt Doherty. It has gotten better in recent years — Spurs sent both Skipp and Ryan Sessegnon out on loan last season. Sessegnon has had nagging injuries this season, but Skipp has turned into one of Spurs’ most important players in midfield.

The ideal scenario for each academy product would be for each player to go through the ranks at each level in the academy before looking at options on loan, perhaps either in the Championship or League One. Using Skipp as an example, he was arguably Norwich’s most important player last season while helping them winning the league and promote to the Premier League. Spurs can only hope that something similar can happen to a player such as Clarke, who left in January to Sunderland and is already becoming a fan-favorite.

It looks like Spurs could have future first team contributors in Scarlett and Devine somewhere down the road. However, it would behoove Spurs to prioritize more of their focus in investing time in the players that the club may not necessarily view as potential beneficiaries to the club’s first-team. The club is leaving money on the table if they do not find this balance, because failure means more academy prospects winding down their contracts and finding greener pastures.

We do not know what Markanday and Cirkin will look like when they are finished products, but the club could have received a better return than just a small transfer fee and sell-on clause for both players had they handled their development a bit better. And had those players been given the opportunities they needed at the right time, who knows, maybe those players could have ended up proving that they were deserving of playing for Spurs’ first team after all and the club would not have had to shell out large sums of money to purchase players at similar positions.

It was mentioned recently that Spurs could possibly be looking at a relationship with a foreign club, with the idea that maintaining a relationship would be extremely beneficial to Spurs’ academy. If you recall, this is what Chelsea did for many years with Vitesse (though that relationship has now ended). If Spurs were to pursue the route of having a “sister club”, a la Chelsea-Vitesse or even Watford-Udinese, it would certainly go a long way towards addressing some of the problems the club has had in recent seasons in either bringing academy players through or at least getting returns on investments of players that do not end up playing professionally at the club.

As the club looks to become more stable under Conte and Paratici continues to bring the club through this rebuild, Spurs need to factor in just how important a productive youth academy can be for a club like Spurs who cannot compete fiscally with the likes of other Premier League clubs. An improved approach that features more thoughtful handling academy players’ development provides not only a better opportunity to make more money on their academy products, but it is also gives these players the ability to take better control of their careers. Finding that balance is key to avoiding these contract standoffs and will allow Spurs to get the most value out of the academy.

Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.