Andre Villas-Boas seems to make a big point of bringing out the untapped talents embedded in the members of his squad. Who will benefit the most from this approach?
Though Andre Villas-Boas has only been in charge of Tottenham Hotspur for eight months, the green shoots of the new programme for change and progression that he was hired to enact are already clear for all to observe. Among the aspects of AVB's project that seem to have taken hold, arguably the most prominent has been the challenging of players both new and older to try and break new ground in what they can bring to this Spurs side, be it in a subtle developing of certain attributes or in a wholesale position change. In those eight short months, Jermain Defoe has for the only extended period in his whole career managed to put together strings of consistent performances as a lone forward; Gylfi Sigurdsson has been reborn as a wide playmaker who operates out of the left flank; Michael Dawson has upped his game to function as a high-line defender; Sandro has become a dynamic and omnipresent box-to-box threat; and last but by no means least, Gareth Bale is on the verge of completing what seems now to have been a destined transition towards playing as a forward.
Of course, encouraging players to branch out away from their original pigeonholes is hardly an original management style. Indeed, we are only one manager removed from another figure who was very fond of getting his players to try and mix up their games, Spurs' own prodigal son Harry Redknapp. Whereas Redknapp's approach to achieving this goal was more of the laissez-faire "throw the lads on and let them figure it out for themselves" variety, however, AVB's managemental style seems to involve helping players to discover something about themselves by actively discouraging the untamed urge to express, to ball-hog and snatch at shots and opt for the mazy run, and instead instilling a focus on a couple of fundamentals- teamwork, pressing and so forth- so that players have a solid platform, a procedural structure, within which to start to test their own abilities and blossom.
The undeniable results of this style of coaching do not merely spell good news for the rest of the current season- they also have exciting implications for the future, precipitating a new era in which players who might otherwise be overlooked under other managers might through self-exploration have a higher chance of becoming valued assets to the first team. With that in mind, I wanted to have a crack at exploring some of the players currently on Spurs' books who might be the next in line to up their game and take on new "immense dimensions" in the next generation of Tottenham stars.
Aside from being the guy who everyone knows for demonstrating an impressive vocal range in Spurs' reserves fun locker-room cover of Stand By Me, Andros Townsend has been on the radar of wonderkid watchers for several years now after a couple of successful loan spells, some great outings with the England U21s, and some stellar but all-to-sporadic appearances for the Spurs first team in Europe and throughout a couple of different trophy runs. On paper, Townsend's problem is that he already plays in a position which has for years been locked down by Gareth Bale, and looks to be the new domain of Gylfi Sigurdsson as he takes on the mantle of Bale's partner in interchange crime in AVB's fluid front-three system.
Luckily, Townsend is a player with enough different and valuable attributes in his locker to suggest that he might be the first in line for an AVB-style positional makeover, some of which he has already demonstrated during his current loan spell with QPR. In his debut against Norwich, for which the young winger was handed a surprising start, Townsend nominally lined up on the left for the start of the tie. As the heat and action area maps below show, however, Townsend ended up shifting all over the pitch, repeatedly swapping flanks and dropping deep to collect the ball, and ultimately playing much of the game through the centre.
These stats are exemplary of Townsend's performances for QPR so far, which have consistently seen him display similar levels of roaming. To me, Townsend's loan has so far confirmed a growing impression for me that, like Bale, he might be wasted pigeonholed as simply an orthodox winger. Indeed, his ability to dribble, play killer balls and put shots on goal instead suggests to me that in the future he could move into the stable of Spurs players who can both play through the middle and shift out wide to provide a multifaceted attacking approach- not so much as a forward as Bale and Sigurdsson have proven to be so far this season, but instead as a tricky number 10, or even as a super-rare inside-out wide playmaker on the right flank.
It's going to be tough for Andros to make his mark on the Spurs first team from next season onwards with our stable of attacking midfielders already so packed full of quality talent. But one thing seems to me to be for certain- he won't be able to show off the best of his abilities if he allows himself to be pegged as an out-and-out winger. His raw abilities suggest he will thrive under AVB's developmental methods, and hopefully that means he can contribute to the side in a new and more meaningful way than ever before sometime in the near future.
If ever there was a player more in need of some guidance and challenging when it comes to positional matters than Jake Livermore for Spurs in recent years, I certainly haven't seen or heard of them. We know Jake is a big, strong guy who can tackle hard- he's athletic, covers a lot of ground, and his passing statistics if he gets to play significant minutes of a game are always good, often with a few key passes or assists thrown in for good measure. But we, and Jake himself, remain for all of this evidence of his skill somewhat in the dark about how exactly he can be useful to Tottenham in the present and near future.
The problem for me, fundamentally, seems to be that Livermore has shown himself to be too rounded a player to be pigeonholed just as a pure holding guy, but not quite talented enough at anything else to risk handing starts to at this moment in time. If he really wants to get significant minutes for Tottenham, it is my belief that that key aspect of his game that is both a mark of his quality and the thing that keeps him out of the side- his passing, which makes him more than a holding guy but not quite an orchestrator- that must be isolated, focused on and brought to the fore. In addition, his driving runs up the pitch must be married to an heightened level of focus and care on not giving the ball away.
If Jake can work with AVB on these two dimensions of this game, there is a possibility, however slim, that he could emerge as a second option for the most vital slot in the pitch- that currently occupied by Mousa Dembele of the box-to-box playmaker, the individual who shoulders the burden of keeping Spurs positive by driving the ball up the pitch and slotting in efficient killer passes to the forwards. For me, Livermore is much better cut out for this role than he ever was for that of a holding player, and could be a better fit for the side's creative slot than Tom Huddlestone in this current side if he finally mastered it-maybe under AVB he'll get one final chance to prove me right about that.
For years now, everyone has had Steven Caulker pegged as the new Ledley King- a tall, strong Academy-produced centre back who carries an incredible aerial threat and a touch of class on the ball. But how far are we prepared to carry the comparisons? Would will be willing to consider the possibility that Caulker might also thrive as a defensive midfielder- much like Ledley did in the early stages of his career?
At the moment, Caulker is playing on rotation with a number of high quality and crucially more experienced peers at centre back- Jan Vertonghen, Michael Dawson, William Gallas and, imminently, Younes Kaboul. I have absolutely no doubts that he will continue to have a big impact on the team's fortunes for the rest of the season, and that he stands a chance of nailing down a CB slot in the years to come. But is it a step too far to suggest that we could get him some extra minutes in the side while testing him for as-yet untapped abilities by trying him out in the middle of the park? Every time I see Caulker carry the ball forward out of defence, every time I see him stop for a minute and pick out a pass, it seems apparent to me that he wasn't meant to play defence for the whole of his career. With the levels of positional awareness he can bring to the side thrown in the mix, AVB could gift himself a truly talented and classy defence-shielder by trying him in the role, one who could sit between the lines of midfield and defence, sweep up attacks before they start and turn them on their head by starting counter attacks. The discipline he's show in man-marking a succession of incredible forwards out of the game, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic who he completely shackled on international duty late last year, might also mean that he could be utilized to play the "Phil Jones" role of being stuck on a particularly different attacker to frustrate the oppositions' ability to create.
It's a stretch, perhaps but if David Luiz can do it, surely a player of Caulker's focus and drive can as well.
The undisputed star of Tottenham's Academy this year and arguably the team's brightest prospect for the future, there are seemingly no real limits on what Alex Pritchard can achieve if AVB takes him under his wing and helps to bring out the best in his game. A central attacking midfielder by trade, Pritchard has expanded his game in recent seasons to function as both a wide man and a deeper central playmaker, and in the process has also demonstrated the ability to score rangy free kicks and a clinical instinct for finishing as well. While still too young to be the subject of any true speculation over first team roles at this moment in time, Pritchard is progressing extremely rapidly through ranks at Spurs, and sooner or late AVB will have to start thinking about ways in which he could be utilized in the future. I've thus included him on this list because of all of Spurs' current crop young players, Pritchard for me has demonstrated the greater level of comfort and ability to make an impact in a range of midfield roles, and I'm very excited about him as a prospect that could demonstrate what AVB could do with a set of players to mould and develop from very early points in their careers.
I only intended this to be a little intro to a wider debate about role-varying under AVB, and as ever I look forward to hearing any commentariat input or suggestions on the subject. Who do you think the next player to demonstrate hidden "immense dimensions" under AVB will be? Sound off below.