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Youthful Tottenham being engineered for long term Premier League success

Modified 20 Mar 2019, 14:54 IST
Team Focus: Pochettino
Nabil Bentaleb has been very impressive since making his breakthrough last season

The list of superlatives left to describe Harry Kane’s phenomenal rise over the past months is fast running out. Praise upon praise has been heaped on the man-of-the-moment, with past players and pundits alike demanding an England call-up whilst talk persists of the likes of Real Madrid sending scouts to check on his progress.  

While his former boss weighs in hoping to wrestle some of the credit for Kane’s surge having introduced him to the first team at the tail end of last season, it is his current boss that deserves recognition for keeping faith in the youth at White Hart Lane in spite of the vast riches spent on bringing players in to the club in recent years.

The team that Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino fielded in the north London derby victory over Arsenal at the weekend was the youngest put out by any team in the Premier League this season. After the Liverpool game, Spurs have now put out the 4 youngest starting elevens of the campaign.

A lack of experience may have cost them with the same team fielded in defeat at Anfield on Tuesday night, but there are certainly reasons to be optimistic about the future. Pochettino, who blooded youth at Southampton, too, has played a significant role.

And while Kane laps up every piece of praise thrown his way, there are other youthful heroes in the Tottenham ranks.

Credit should go to Eric Dier, who, after learning his trade in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon, has stuck to his guns over a preference to play at centre-back – even rather questionably refusing an England Under-21 call-up after Gareth Southgate told him he would only be used at right-back – and after starting his Tottenham career filling in on the right side of defence, now looks to be one of Pochettino’s first-choice selections in the middle.  

Pochettino looks to be getting more out of Spurs’ record-signing Erik Lamela, who has clearly bought into the high-octane, pressing game better than some others, and though he is top of the side’s assist charts (5) after laying on Kane’s goal at Anfield, his return of only 1 goal leaves something to be desired. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Christian Eriksen’s contribution needs no introduction. It is in central midfield that developments have been most striking, though.

Tim Sherwood showed a huge deal of faith in young Nabil Bentaleb last season and his rise has been astonishing. From an unknown 18-year-old a fair way into last season, Bentaleb has developed into one of the most integral members of Tottenham’s squad as well as the Algeria national team, too.

He played 90 minutes in 3 of the Desert Foxes’ 4 World Cup matches and more recently played every minute in their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations campaign. In his absence, Spurs were taken to an FA Cup replay by Burnley, were later knocked out by Leicester and lost in the league at Crystal Palace. They arguably came out of the last month with better results than some of their performances deserved (in the 2-1 win at home to Sunderland, for example).

Team Focus: Pochettino
Average age of starting XIs across the Premier League

In fact, the defeat at Liverpool was only the third competitive game Spurs have lost all season out of 17 matches that Bentaleb has started (17.6%). The previous defeats came away to Chelsea, who until recently drawing with City had a 100% record at home in Premier League games this season, as well as at home to Liverpool, who completely dismantled Tottenham at White Hart Lane back in August when they were still very much a work in progress.

Comparatively, Spurs have lost 5 of the 13 (38.5%) Premier League games Bentaleb has missed this season and been defeated in 7 out of 24 (29.2%) in all competitions.

An inherently competitive nature serves him well in a squad bursting at the seams with midfield talent. He has made himself indispensible and is by some distance now their most important player in that position, indisputably ahead of the likes of Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli and Mousa Dembélé in the midfield pivot positions.

Possessing unerring confidence despite his age, Bentaleb is unbelievably assured in possession, averaging 57.1 passes per game at a success rate of 86.1% and does not let settings such as Stamford Bridge overawe him.

During the warm up for that game in early December, Bentaleb was snapping at heels and scowling in frustration whenever he ceded possession in what was only a small-sided game of keep-ball amongst teammates. Sky-high standards continue to propel the Algerian onto bigger and better things.

Team Focus: Pochettino
Statistical breakdown of Tottenham’s midfield duo of Mason and Bentaleb

He has struck up an utterly unprecedented but extremely impressive partnership in midfield with Ryan Mason, who was even less well known at the season’s outset. 23 years of age, he is a late developer, having made his Tottenham debut some six years before coming off the bench to turn a Capital One Cup tie against Nottingham Forest on its head this season. In the intervening years he has spent spells on loan at Yeovil, Doncaster, Millwall, Lorient and last season, Swindon.

His range of passing and propensity to score rightly remain in question, but he does exactly what his manager asks of him, flitting about energetically, winning possession and setting attacks into motion. He is making more tackles than any other Tottenham player, with his 3.3 per game the eighth-most in the whole Premier League. Of central midfielders, only established Premier League players Lucas (17.7) and Nemanja Matic (22.7) are making a tackle more frequently than the Spurs academy product (22.8).

He is key to maintaining the tempo that Pochettino demands in central midfield, not through his passing (though he does tend to move the ball quicker than the likes of Dembélé, Paulinho or Capoue), but through his harrying of opponents alongside Bentaleb. In doing so he has risen rather incredibly to one Spurs’.

The season has, in spite of yesterday’s defeat, started to take shape for Pochettino’s Tottenham, and certainly looks like it could turn out a success. What the events of their campaign serve to show is that Tottenham did not need to go out and splash the cash they made from the sale of Gareth Bale in order to rebuild; they already had the means of recovery at their very fingertips.

With a manager boasting fresh ideas and a youthful squad ready to heed his instructions, there is a strong chance of success beyond an upcoming cup final with Chelsea. Champions League football is the ultimate goal for this season, but the team being built at White Hart Lane will only be stronger next season if they do end up missing out.

With a manager boasting fresh ideas and a youthful squad ready to heed his instructions, there is a strong chance of success beyond an upcoming cup final with Chelsea. Champions League football is the ultimate goal for this season, but the team being built at White Hart Lane will only be stronger next season if they do end up missing out.

Published 12 Feb 2015, 21:01 IST
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