On Tuesday morning, Tottenham Hotspur finally announced the signing of Djed Spence, bringing to a conclusion what has felt like a never-ending transfer saga. Negotiations and discussions with Middlesbrough went on for what felt like years, finally concluding with Spurs announcing the youngster on what is initially a £12.5m fee.
Spence was shipped out on loan to Nottingham Forest after a very well-known falling out with Neil Warnock, who was the ‘Boro gaffer at the time. Another ‘Boro wingback, Isaiah Jones, took his spot, and Jones has also gotten Premier League consideration since establishing himself in new manager Chris Wilder’s back three. Despite going out on loan late in the summer window, Spence hit the ground running almost immediately for a bad Forest team who quickly evolved under talented manager Steve Cooper. Almost immediately, Forest became a power in the Championship and Spence’s ability at wingback for Cooper was a huge reason why.
While Spence was a starlet for Forest on loan helping them win promotion to the top flight for the first time since 1998-99, the truth is that Spence is a player that has been on Spurs’ radar for awhile. In the 2019-20 season, José Mourinho spoke highly of Spence after Spurs played ‘Boro twice in an FA Cup round, and there’s been plenty of background chatter since suggesting Spurs were keeping an eye on him.
Improving the wingback situation at the club has been a big priority for Tottenham this summer. Antonio Conte likes to make like-for-like substitutions at the wingback position to keep the players playing in the role fresh, as it is a demanding one and critical to Conte’s tactics. With the Premier League moving to five substitutes this summer, it will be more important than ever for Conte to have a stable of wingback options to choose from to keep up the intensity in his system throughout each game. Now that Spence is here, he provides for yet another wingback option for Conte and Spurs. Let’s take a look at some pros and cons regarding Spence and what we can expect from him.
Homegrown quota, English profile and potential international
After all of the incomings for Spurs so far this summer, the focus now shifts to moving fringe players in the squad out, either on loan or on a permanent basis. This process has already been signaled by Conte himself when the Italian left behind players like Sergio Reguilón, Harry Winks and others from the pre-season trip to South Korea. The reason for this is because Spurs, like any Premier League team, need to meet a homegrown quota for player registration for the upcoming season.
The Homegrown Player Rule is put in place by the Premier League to encourage the development of more homegrown players. Counterfactually, the rule does not require a minimum number of homegrown players, but rather states that a club can have a maximum of 17 “non-homegrown” players in each squad. And because a full squad is a maximum of 25 players, that means to field one, at least eight players have to be considered “homegrown,” i.e. trained at an association club for three years before turning 21. Spence fits the homegrown criteria and he also fulfills a profile that Spurs have been missing for quite some time.
Just a few seasons ago, the England national team was loaded with Spurs players. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Kieran Tripper and Winks were all apart of various England squads, but Tottenham’s involvement in Gareth Southgate’s squad has been minimal in more recent seasons. At Spurs, Spence will now have the profile and the resources (both at the club and in the squad) for him to take the next step in his career. The England national team is loaded with RB/RWB talent, so while it will be hard for Spence to break into the team, it is imperative for Spurs’ player development and for future English young talents to see a youngster like Spence be considered at the international level while playing and improving at Spurs.
Young and with potential, but still experienced playing in the RWB position
Spurs have historically been a club that likes to buy players at a younger age and develop them. And while they have drifted from that approach this offseason with some of their marquee signings being older, the Spence transfer certainly fits this mold. Despite being just 21, this is a player who has now been a key contributor at two different clubs over the past two seasons.
When players like Phil Foden, Dejan Kulusevski and others come into the league and produce right from the get-go, we often forget that players truly hit the primes of their careers between the ages of 25-28. At 21, Spence is still young but has a bevy of experience operating in the role he will be asked to play at Spurs.
There may not be a better developer of wingbacks in recent history than Conte. He can seeming turn water into wine — this is evident when Conte took an older Victor Moses and converted him into a productive wingback a few years ago. With Conte overseeing Spence’s development, he will be able to simplify what is asked of the youngster to get the most out of him. Conte’s strength has always been identifying the strongest skill of a player and asking simple things of that player to bring that dimension to the overall group — which leads us to our next point.
Looks the part and dangerous going forward
If you look at his defending statistics, Spence is quite decent in individual duels. He does not let attackers get past him often, but we will get to some of his flaws later. Another strength of Spence is that he simply looks the part. He is 6’0”, which is yet another taller player brought into the squad by Conte — signaling Spurs’ efforts to become more a physical side. This is due to Conte asking his sides and his players to play extremely physical to sometimes out-intensify opposing sides. Despite his young age, Spence looks extremely strong and he was known last season to be a contributor over the entirety of matches.
Last season, Spence excelled at getting past opposing players and progressing attacks forward. Should he play at right wingback as we all expect him to do, he will have even more license to play further up the pitch with Cristian Romero likely covering him from behind and a player like Kulusevski to play off of to make either inverting or overlapping runs.
Whereas a player like Emerson Royal may struggle progressing the ball and getting into dangerous positions and a player like Matt Doherty may have a hard time beating players one on one, Spence provides the ability to do something the other Tottenham right wingbacks cannot. And with five substitutions being implemented next season, this will be important for Conte’s options depending on if Spurs are chasing a game or seeing a result out.
Jumping from Championship to Champions League
This one is obvious. It would be unfair to completely expect the world of Spence from the jump as he transitions to yet another new club, but also to the level of competition in the Premier League and Champions League.
Surely, Spence should still be considered a bit raw because of this, but he is a budding prospect with a skillset that can be further advanced by the likes of Conte, assistant coach Cristian Stellini and the rest of the staff.
If I had to guess, I would say that Doherty would likely be the first-team starter at least out of the gate considering his form prior to his injury last season and the on-field relationship he was forming with Kulusevski. However, Spence still has a few more weeks of training under Conte in the pre-season. I would be much more pessimistic about Spence’s ability to transition immediately had his transfer gone on and on into the latter parts of the summer window. But, he will have a few more preseason games and a lot of time to get used to the fitness and learn the patterns.
Over the past few years, Spurs have become a side that does not rely on crosses to create dangerous opportunities. Perhaps it’s due to Harry Kane’s hold-up play and through balls as well as Son Heung-Min’s ability to plan in behind opposition lines, but Spurs are much more inclined to play through teams than lump in balls from the wings.
When we think of former Tottenham wingback/attacking fullback options, Kyle Walker was also not a spectacular crosser of the ball and while Trippier was adept in free kicks, he struggled with consistency in putting either low or high crosses into the box. Serge Aurier excelled in this area, but of course he had his issues elsewhere.
For Spence, his final ball and delivery into the box was not spectacular despite getting into dangerous positions with ease last season. That may put off some Spurs supporters considering the biggest criticism of Emerson is his final ball. But — again — Conte is going to find what is easiest for Spence and ask things of him that fall in the Italian’s patterns and style of play for the youngster to bring that particular skillset to the squad.
Off-ball defending + positioning
Like many young players, Spence is still getting adjusted to some of the more nuanced parts of the game. We can see his brilliance on the ball along with his seamless footwork and dynamic pace. We can also see how his strength and mature frame can hold up when being asked to defend. However, it is the areas of the game where his intangibles are not in question that hurt him at times last season at Forest.
Positioning will perhaps be Spence’s main challenge, and at Spurs this will be an area he will need to improve upon. Because Conte sides are so well-tooled and they offer a lot of intensity in a mid-block, you are not going to see opposing teams succeed on the counter very often. However, lapses in concentration — whether that is in defending or simple positioning — can be the difference in close matches. We need to see more maturity from Spence because of this.
Spence already has the skillset to become a dominant wingback in a possession-based side that likes to dictate the tempo and figure out ways through opposing teams. With the proper coaching and overseeing of his development, the issues and concerns in his game can easily be ironed out. Again, expecting the world from Spence would be unfair given the step-up in competitiveness he will face this upcoming season. But, Spence already has all the raw tools he needs to continue to develop at Spurs. And under Conte, he will be provided the meticulous platform that will give him the opportunity to work out some areas of his game and become more of a complete wingback.
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