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Guest Post: Can I Graduate? Thoughts on Spurs’ Academy

Some thoughts on Spurs’ academy and Ryan Mason’s comments on it; any similarity between this article and a certain Third Eye Blind song are unintentional.

Aston Villa U18 v Tottenham Hotspur U18: U18 Premier League Cup Final Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Dustin’s had some work-related stuff that’s taken up the bulk of his headspace for the past couple of days, which explains (but doesn’t excuse) the lack of content lately. That said, we’re happy to feature this guest post from former Carty Free contributor and “Friend of the Blog” Vince, aka 55thVin. This article was originally posted on Vince’s substack, The Hiatus: A Tottenham Hotspur Diary.

With so much focus on Tottenham Hotspur’s first team: tactical tinkering and transfer windows, all while head coach and director of football roles remain unfilled, I felt like Ryan Mason’s comments on the state of the academy made fewer waves in the news cycle that it should have.

For those that totally missed them, they can be found in an Evening Standard article by Dan Kilpatrick. Mason essentially says “sure, having academy players in the team is nice, but they have to be good enough.” He does delve into more specifics but that’s the crux of it all. As someone who is frustrated by the academy and the handling of young players in general, it felt too cliché and dismissive. He even used Japhet Tanganga as an example of a player who did make it into the first team when I think of Tanganga as a player who has been mishandled since his introduction into the first team, three permanent managers and two care-takers ago.

However, before I evaluate Mason’s comments and critique the way Spurs have been developing and handling their academy players, I do want to recognize the difficulty of academy players breaking into the first team at Tottenham. We are financially unrecognizable to the club we were even five years ago. Because of that, we buy better players at higher fees. Fees that bring in quality but also demand a level of commitment, yes as footballers, but also as investments. We cannot act like this doesn’t exist or matter. It does, and it affects the way a roster will be managed. Within this context, Mason is correct. Academy players who break into our first team in 2023 have to be really good.

That being said, I am going to critique out setup anyway. While I am no ITK, the type of scattergun approach we have used with our younger players has to leave them just as confused as the supporters. And make no mistake, supporters have a mixed, ever-shifting understandings of how modern academies should function. But if the club actually had a vision, I think everyone would recognize it, get onside.

Which leads me to my first point: there is no club philosophy on how to play. We are often synonymous with entertaining football based on our history of push-and-run, glory, glory European nights, and slick footballers like Ossie Aediles, Glenn Hoddle, and Luka Modric calling N17 home. But we haven’t played like that for a while. Mauricio Pochettino’s teams liked having the ball, but much of that resulted from an intense pressing system and a cheat code of a midfielder, Mousa Dembele.

Is that totally fair to Poch’s football? No, not really. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were strong in possession and leveraged accordingly. Christian Eriksen was a creative passing hub that felt under appreciated at times but stretched and penetrated defenses in a way that we’ve sorely lacked. But Dembele’s health became untenable and Daniel Levy failed to refresh the roster, so Pochettino’s teams began to falter. We all know the list of following managers but if we are honest, we have produced about six months of nice football in the last 60.

Not only has the football been bad, but because there is no footballing soul to center things, we have a roster full of misfits, redundancies, and specialists. Some of those misfits, redundancies, and specialists are capable footballers in a vaccum, even supremely talented ones, but those are not words any supporter wants to use when describing their club.

And that’s players we’ve targeted in the transfer window!

When the academy does not play in the same way as the first team, it creates an even larger gap between those two worlds. By all accounts Alfie Devine is a splendid creative midfielder. But where would he fit in the current set-up? I can envision a few possibilities but they are nothing more than projections of his skillset into the roles being used on the senior side, roles quite different than he has been playing. That lack of continuity affects younger players more. If Devine has been accustomed to high-pressing, showing for the ball, and a focus on progressive passing in training, imagine the shock it would’ve been to go to Conte training sessions.

Congrats, Alfie, you’re a wide forward now! How’s your hold up game? Not too good? Well, we have some midfield spots for you, I guess. Fancy passing back to Eric Dier 15 times a match??

What foundation is the club providing for him or players like him to succeed with such a fractured sense of identity? And I am not so basic to believe that senior football should be one-dimensional and dogmatic in approach. Teams should be able to mix it up. But players should not feel like they are joining a new club when they make the transition to first team training.

Obviously this is idealistic, but when we support Tottenham Hotspur, and not a club doped by the wealth of a sovereign nation, there may have to be more investment in philosophy, ethos, and sense of who we are to gain an edge. As I tried to make clear, and will try to expound upon in part two when I analyze loans, this will not ensure success, but it certainly cannot hurt. Not only will having a clear sense of who we are make the recruitment process easier at the senior level, it will permeate all the way to the youngest players in our system. All parts of Tottenham Hotspur are equally Tottenham Hotspur and we need to begin acting like we know what that is again.