Pochettino reaps benefits of letting Spurs fledglings fly
If they are good enough, they are old enough. So goes the adage often used whenever a fresh-faced protégé emerges from the rank and file at a tender age. Under Mauricio Pochettino it is a mantra Tottenham have taken to another level, a modus operandi which is reaping rewards as a young and vibrant squad impresses during the early stages of the season.
"I'm not afraid to play them," says Pochettino. "If a player deserves to play, if they are 17, 18, 19 or 20 it's the same for us, if they deserve to play and show character and maturity to be given the responsibility. But for that, you need to build the player."
Spurs are unbeaten since the opening day of the Premier League campaign, going into this afternoon's north London derby with Arsenal. It is their third game of a week that began with Monday's 3-1 victory over Aston Villa, followed by a narrow win against Anderlecht in the Europa League. The biggest match of all comes after a taxing period but, given the abundant energy on display at White Hart Lane, tiredness should not be a factor for a fledgling team brimming with zest.
The Thursday to Sunday turnaround was a thorn in their side last season. In this campaign, though, Spurs have won two and drawn another in the games immediately after European nights. Pochettino puts the improvement down to sports science, yet it is difficult not to conclude that the age of his players is also a factor.
Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Ben Davies and Nabil Bentaleb are all aged 22 or younger. Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen are 23, Ryan Mason 24 and the full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker both 25. Even goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, and experienced centre-half Jan Vertonghen are under 30.
The average age of Tottenham's team against Manchester City in September was 24 years and 40 days, the youngest in the top flight this season if still marginally older than the club's youngest starting XI in Premier League history, which stands at 23 years and 97 days against Sheffield Wednesday in 1992.
Kane is the obvious success story and is beginning to enter a purple patch having scored five goals in his last three matches. But the striker is joined by a number of English talents who have caught Roy Hodgson's eye. Alli, who scored against Villa, signed from MK Dons last February but only joined the squad in the summer, and is demonstrating undoubted potential. Meanwhile, Dier, pushed into defensive midfield of late, earned his first England call-up on Thursday for friendlies against Spain and France.
"It's not about age or name," says Pochettino when discussing team selection and developing young talent. "I think it's fair when you have a squad of 25 or 26 players that the young player, if he deserves to play, why not give him the chance?
"The younger player needs faith in them and you need to translate the feeling that you believe in them. The important thing is that they need to believe that you believe because, if not, it's nothing. If they feel that you only want to add some names in your list, this is the worst thing you can show. When they feel that you believe, but really believe in them, it gives them extra. This is the moment they can play.
"A good example is Dier, when we signed him from Portugal, the first game he played against West Ham and after that was centre-back, then full-back and this season I think that we start to train with him as a holding midfielder. I think it's a fantastic position for him."
Credit should also go to Pochettino's predecessor, Tim Sherwood, who trusted academy players to make the jump to the first team, notably utilising Bentaleb in central midfield. For Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, it is surely a welcome relief, having seen many big-money signings fail.
Pochettino has promoted youth at each team he has managed. At Espanyol, more than a dozen youngsters made their first-team debuts, despite going through periods of difficulty, only three Spanish first division sides had more youth team players in their first-team squads. The Southampton academy, meanwhile, was a key reason he took the job at St Mary's and nine of the last 16 England debutants have worked under Pochettino, either at Tottenham or on the south coast.
Dier, who arrived from Sporting Lisbon last summer, says: "He gives us young players the chance. He believes in us and it's a matter of us taking that chance. None of the young boys in there haven't taken their chance and if you do that he sticks with you and believes in you. It is great to have someone like him who believes in us and gives us the platform to play on.
"I was just having lunch and he called me over and said that he had spoken to Roy Hodgson after the Aston Villa game and he thought there was a strong possibility that I would be in the squad. I would never have imagined that [if] during my summer holidays someone had told me this was going to happen."
What impressed Pochettino against Anderlecht was his side's ability to grind out a win, even though they were far from their best. If they can make it a hat-trick of wins inside seven days at the Emirates, Tottenham will cut the deficit between themselves and Arsenal. Their opponents have a number of injury problems but Spurs' only minor concern surrounds Rose, who suffered a knock against Villa and missed Thursday's victory.
"It's a process, it's a process," says Pochettino. "So Josh Onomah, last season, two or three months before the end, started to work with us. And he made the pre-season with us. The same with Harry Winks and different young players that now are with us in the squad, training every day and playing with the under 21s. It's to give them the confidence and trust and to feel they are part of the squad. You feel proud when you arrive and the young player starts to play and they get to the level where England or a different national team picks them. I think for the club, and for us and for the supporters, it is a great thing."
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