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Sunday, June 16, 2024

How Tottenham have rebuilt with youth – and why contract control is now key

Last week, Ange Postecoglou talked openly about his hopes that Tottenham would become the destination of choice for talented young players, knowing that his club is increasingly attractive to those who are deciding where they want to develop as players. Lucas Bergvall had just picked Tottenham over Barcelona and it was only one month ago that Radu Dragusin chose Spurs over Bayern Munich.

For Postecoglou, the reasons were obvious given Spurs’ style of play and the opportunities they give youngsters.

It all felt very different from the situation two years ago when Antonio Conte would sit in the same chair and talk about the importance of adding experience to an already-ageing squad. Conte would point to what Zlatan Ibrahimovic had added since returning to AC Milan at the age of 38. The implication was clear: if only Spurs could shell out for a few more expensive veterans, they finally might win something.

Many things have changed at Spurs since then but perhaps the most important development has been a decisive shift from experience to youth in the Spurs squad. Postecoglou has turned the clock back, giving Spurs their youngest team since the peak years of Mauricio Pochettino. It has been a long time coming but Spurs can finally look forward to the future with a young, hungry team again.

We are only three months away from the fifth anniversary of Pochettino famously saying that Spurs needed a “painful rebuild”. That rebuild had been avoided for years, both before Pochettino was sacked and immediately after. Tottenham tried to keep squeezing the last few drops out of a squad that had nothing left to give.

This only started to change in earnest with the arrival of Fabio Paratici in 2021. Early on in his tenure, he said in an interview with the club website: “We have an objective, a target: to renew the team with young players, young talent, with big potential.” Soon after Paratici arrived, he signed Cristian Romero, Bryan Gil and Pape Matar Sarr. The next window saw Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur come in, confounding everything we thought we knew about the merits of raiding a former club on the last day of a January window.

The summer 2022 window was, in hindsight, a fudge between the club’s desire to keep refreshing the squad with younger players and Conte’s desire for more experience in the first team. Richarlison, Yves Bissouma and Ivan Perisic were signed with an eye on the immediate term while Destiny Udogie and Djed Spence were brought in for the future. And the arrival of Pedro Porro that January finally provided a long-term solution to Spurs’ issues at right-back.

Even while operating with no official recruitment team, Tottenham continued to bring the average age down in the summer of 2023 when they signed Micky van de Ven, Guglielmo Vicario, James Maddison and Brennan Johnson. Dragusin — along with Timo Werner on loan — arrived in the January window.

Vicario was bought to replace long-time Spurs No 1 Hugo Lloris (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Signing players is only half the job. The other side was to move on players who had performed well for Spurs for such a long time. This is an area that the club had dragged their feet on for years, failing to move on players when they were at their peak (and still had a market value), instead holding onto them for too long and seeing their values decline. The sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City for £50million ($63m) in 2017 was really the only time Spurs have got full value for a sale, and even then his seven seasons at City suggest they might have got a bit more for him.

After that, Spurs sold Christian Eriksen to Inter for just £17million, lost Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose on free transfers and saw Dele Alli join Everton on a performance-weighted deal. The Pochettino veterans were finally starting to leave, but the timing of those departures, and the lack of money Spurs recouped, meant that the rebuild was even more painful for the club than it needed to be.

The final and perhaps most important moment in this long drawn-out process came last summer with the appointment of Postecoglou as the new manager. Here, finally, was a manager brought in to deliver a fresh start to the whole team. He had the remit — in a way Conte did not — to say goodbye to the old generation. Harry Kane was sold to Bayern Munich. Hugo Lloris and Eric Dier found themselves down the pecking order and eventually left in January. Only Ben Davies and Son Heung-min of the veterans were left.

But that long-overdue clearing of the decks meant that Tottenham finally had the space to give opportunities to young players. And in Postecoglou they had a manager who trusted those youngsters and wanted to teach them how to play his football. You can see from the below graphic how Spurs’ average age — which had shot up to new heights, 27.6, under Conte last season — has now dropped down to 25.8, its lowest level since Pochettino’s third season.

The three players Postecoglou specifically mentioned in this context last week were Udogie, Sarr and Van de Ven, all playing their first season of regular Premier League football. Udogie only turned 21 in November but has played 81.3 per cent of Premier League minutes so far, with only three outfield players ahead of him. He has taken to a new league instantly, as well as appearing to master the demands of Postecoglou’s unique take on the full-back role almost overnight.

Van de Ven has played slightly less than Udogie — 58.5 per cent of the minutes — but he is a first-choice player. He started the first 12 games, missed two months with a hamstring injury, and then came straight back into the team. He is slightly older than Udogie — he turns 23 in April — but again has settled in instantly despite this being his first season in English football. And if Van de Ven had not injured his hamstring against Chelsea and not been replaced by Davies, Spurs’ average age would now be even lower.

Perhaps the most interesting has been Sarr. He has played marginally less than Van de Ven this season (18 fewer minutes, so 57.6 per cent), having been away at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal last month. But while this is not his first season at Spurs, he has arguably made the biggest leap. Conte did not trust him last season, starting him just once in the league, with Cristian Stellini giving him a second league start in the 6-1 defeat at Newcastle United.

This even felt strange at the time, given how good Sarr was in the Champions League first leg at AC Milan. But Postecoglou has seen in Sarr, who turned 21 at the start of the season, what Paratici first did, and made him the dynamo of the midfield. Spurs have not been the same team without him.

Those three are the most important but there is also Johnson, another 22-year-old, who started 13 straight games in November, December and January. Postecolgou suggested last week that Johnson has played more than might have been expected when he arrived from Nottingham Forest.

And then there are the players who are slightly more established but are still keeping the average age down: Porro has the most minutes of any outfield player and only turned 24 in September. Kulusevski is not far behind and only turns 24 in April.

This is why the average age is two years lower than it was last season.

You can see from looking back at the graphic from last season (when Spurs were managed by Conte, and then Stellini, and then Ryan Mason) that the average age was dragged up by the involvements of Lloris, Perisic, Kane and Dier, all of whom have now left.

The point is that Spurs are now in a situation roughly analogous to where they were at the start of the Pochettino era. They have a new team made up of young players who are hungry to win things, and eager to learn from the manager’s new ideas. This is the position that Tottenham have wanted to get back to for a while — and felt miles away during the Jose Mourinho and Conte years.

This fundamentally changes the dynamic between the club and the players. Remember back to the first few years of the Pochettino era. Tottenham were constantly in the process of offering their younger players new long-term contracts, with incremental salary increases every year. Kane, the most prominent example, signed long-term deals in August 2014, February 2015, December 2016 and then June 2018, which turned out to be his last contract at the club. Dele Alli signed three contracts within his first 18 months as a Spurs player. It meant that the club could always retain control of contract situations in the short to medium term.

It was only in the second half of the Pochettino era when players such as Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld started to decline new long-term deals that the atmosphere started to change. Walker had left for City in 2017 and the players became more aware of their market value and more willing to turn down contract offers. Selling those players and replacing them with younger, hungrier options did not work out either. And it was impossible to replicate that atmosphere of the mid-2010s when the players were always tied down; the football and business sides of the club working in perfect harmony.

Sarr has been a revelation for Spurs under Postecoglou (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

In recent months, we have already seen that Tottenham are working in a similar direction again. Udogie and Sarr have recently signed new long-term contracts tying them down until 2030, longer than anyone else at Spurs. Neither player was given huge wages either, both of them earning roughly £50,000 per week.

But they have been rewarded for their excellent form this season. And if they continue to perform well it is very plausible that another improved contract would be on offer in the not-too-distant future, even if the player still has four or even five years left. While no other contract renewals are imminent, the situations of Bentancur, Bissouma and Romero will be on the agenda before too long.

This is the approach that has worked so well for Tottenham in the past and it was instrumental in building a team that could punch above its weight on the pitch and in the marketplace.

Getting back to this position has taken so much time, money and energy, that you might even call it a ‘painful rebuild’. But now the club know they can be an attractive destination again for young players, eager to learn and develop in the Premier League, under a manager who trusts them — just as Tottenham have wanted it.

(Top photo: Henry Browne/Getty Images)

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