Andros Townsend is England's new brightest star.
Needing two wins in their final two matches in World Cup qualifying, it was a previously uncapped 22-year-old pacing England to consecutive victories. Townsend was great, not necessarily the difference-maker, but certainly the top player on the field in England's back-to-back wins over Montenegro and Poland, punching their ticket to Brazil.
There have been articles and columns downplaying the significance of his contributions, citing a lack of quality opposition as the catalyst for success. Others have scoffed at his long-term prospects of being a lynchpin for country, pointing to other young English players showing promise, only to stumble in their respective club and international careers. Such questions are fine to ask, but do little to acknowledge the quality of the player on an all-important stage over the last week.
Townsend was fearless for England, as he has been for Spurs to start the season. His confidence on the ball and willingness to take on defenders on the dribble using his size and pace are reminiscent of a young Steve McManaman trotting down the wing. England has been without the combination of requisite size and pace with ability for far too long. The left wing has been an abyss. And the right wing, with David Beckham taking the position for the better part of 15 years up until 2009, the national team lacked a player able to get into advanced positions, equally being a scoring threat ,as well as a danger in distribution. It's been just two games for Townsend, but the signal of intent by the player and the willingness of the manager to deploy him in such important matches suggests that, if Roy Hodgson can find similar players ahead of Brazil, England may have some actual substance heading into the FIFA World Cup.
So who is Andros Townsend? Although only 22, Townsend is a player who has risen to prominence in recent months. Getting to a position to warrant consideration for the national team hasn't come easy. Townsend has been sent out on nine loan-spells before finally securing first team club football at Tottenham. Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas handed Townsend a starting role from the get-go this season in a squad rich with midfield talent. Townsend has rewarded his manager, second in the Premier League in shots (26) through Matchday 7 (Townsend has played in six games,) despite not scoring a goal. His goal against Montenegro and constant direct play speaks to his initiative. And the argument can be made even when Theo Walcott is once again fit, Townsend provides a more complete, better suited option than the Arsenal man.
After years of bouncing around the lower leagues of England, including loans of varying degrees of success in the League Championship, Townsend received his first extended look in the Premier League with his former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp at QPR after a January loan move earlier this year. Townsend was bright in spells, scoring two goals for QPR in an otherwise disastrous relegation season at Loftus Road. It was this experience, albeit a trying one, which showed Townsend had the quality to become a Premier League footballer.
Townsend's form thus far this season has gone above and beyond expectations of a young player competing for minutes at a top club. A regular spot is far from a certainty at Spurs with Aaron Lennon in the squad and Argentine Erik Lamela competing for a spot, albeit in a different attacking role. It all depends on formation. Townsend has made his case as best option, completing 87 per cent of passes and giving necessary width to a team with muscle and creativity in the middle of the park.
There is no way AVB banked on Townsend being a preferred option in his summer plans. There are no guarantees a young player returning from a loan move can be a steady and reliable option. AVB hasn't only found that in Townsend, but left back Danny Rose as well, returning from a year at Sunderland. Although the decision to send out players like Townsend and Rose have provided initial returns, therein is the predicament facing top clubs in the Premier League: how best to develop young players with the long-term in mind while attempting to maintain a competitive balance over the short-term.
At present time, loaning out players to get experience is preferable in most cases to allowing players remain at the club and compete for limited squad positions. To some, loan moves are a product of complacency and lack of commitment to proper development - Take my player and give him playing time and, hopefully by the time he returns, I'll have use for him – or similar mindsets are hardly the pathway to achieving sustainable development for young players. It reeks of laziness. Instead, many around the game advocate big clubs establish ‘B' teams in lower divisions of English football. The caveat is none of these ‘B' teams can ever receive promotion to the top flight. This model has been used in Spain over the years, where young players receive valuable experience in the lower tiers, working their way up to the ‘A' squad as they mature and show progress. Even a 16-year-old Lionel Messi started his professional career playing for the Barcelona ‘C' team. The idea of creating an ‘A'/‘B'/'C' team development system makes sense, as the reserve divisions continue to crumble away in England, failing to provide adequate competitive football in a game trending younger in its player membership, while quenching the desire of supporters to see top football.
Those opposing a ‘B' team system say the structure devalues the importance of smaller club football competition at lower levels and divisions in England. Smaller clubs pride themselves on tradition, community, and competition. Although a Manchester United ‘B' team would attract a casual audience in stadia across the country, the ardent supporter will decry such a move as ruining the game, making a mockery of the current structure. Not all teams will be able to create and sustain a set-up of multiple competitive teams in different divisions. The costs and organizational commitment will ensure the big clubs will remain atop of the food chain while the have-nots will remain second-class citizens. Spain is one of the most top heavy, predictable leagues in world football.
Townsend was on-loan nine times. A Spurs ‘B' team would have provided more stability for the young payer in his development and a clear path to the first team. That's not to suggest the practice of a loan-move can't be effective. Due diligence is required to find the right fit for your on-loan players. Nine loan moves speaks to the lack of vision by the parent club in trying to find the right fit to cultivate the talent of Townsend. Simply turning to the League Championship to find a team that will play the player is the easy way out. Championship clubs are always looking to fill out rosters. If an on-loan player has the chance to star for a competitive, forward-thinking Championship club, then so be it. But, by far and away, regular minutes for another Premier League club is a preferable route with a much greater return. Growing familiarity with Premier League football and the expectations of playing with and against quality players is what's required for growth.
The questions of when and where are paramount. The loan move of Romelu Lukaku was a head-scratcher to most with Chelsea sending out an impact player to Everton. Many condemned the move by Jose Mourinho and continue to do so, insisting that Lukaku could help Chelsea up front now. While that may be true, Mourinho is taking the long-view, giving up short-term returns in a squad player at Stamford Bridge in preference for the young player to receive regular and consistent first-team football at Goodison Park. The decision comes with risk. Mourinho is banking on the experienced Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba to provide goals in the lone striker role. The early returns have been sporadic, at best. But over the long-term, this was a patient, calculated move. Lukaku will return to Chelsea a better player after back-to-back years being the go-to man in attack and playing against top competition week-in, week-out. Everton was the perfect place for Lukaku to land - a team committed to playing the ball on the ground in a similar formation to that of Chelsea. The best teams at cultivating talent find these preferable situations where first-team playing time is not just expected, but demanded.
Manchester United have sent out Danny Welbeck (Sunderland) and Tom Cleverley (Wigan Athletic,) who were instant starters on the respective loan moves. The players returned to Old Trafford more complete and were prepared to become key contributors for a Premier League winning team. David Moyes faces the same predicament at present time with Wilfried Zaha. The 20-year-old winger has all the talent in the world, but Moyes feels uncomfortable playing the former Crystal Palace winger due to his carelessness with the ball in dangerous positions. That entire argument is flawed to begin with, but we'll leave that alone for the time being. If Moyes felt this way from the get-go, he should have loaned out Zaha at the beginning of the year. It doesn't do the player or the club any good for talent as such sitting on the sidelines watching games. Moyes however remains steadfast Zaha is better at Old Trafford for the time being.
“I want Wilf to get used to what happens here,” said Moyes. “It is important Wilf gets to see the level of the training here, the level of the players and the quality they have got.”
Zaha is being linked to up to five Premier League teams for a January loan move. He simply has to. Seeing a younger, also raw, Adnan Januzaj get a look while waiting patiently for his chance does Zaha no good. A 20-year-old needs to play. And it's not just young players who suffer from watching. Shinji Kagawa blamed his lack of game action at Old Trafford for his current dip in form internationally with Japan.
“Maybe it's because I'm not used to being on the pitch of late, but I didn't feel like I was able to enter these two games properly,” said Kagawa after friendlies against Serbia and Belarus. “I felt strongly after these two matches that I need to play more.”
This is the crux for top teams. Depth is required to survive an arduous season. Chelsea struggled last year dealing with 69 matches in all competitions. Casuals blamed the manager, but a lack of squad depth was the real issue. Manchester United has depth. Moyes has been reluctant to use his entire squad. There is no question United needs Kagawa. But it doesn't do the player any good not being involved in competitive matches. Javier Hernandez is experiencing the same frustration at United and it's affected his form with Mexico. These players need to play.
Townsend is fortunate to have caught the eye of his club manager and opened the door for his England debut. England manager Roy Hodgson spoke to the fact that Townsend, as well as Welbeck, Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge and Arsenal's Jack Wilshere are playing regular first team football as the catalyst to positive performance with England. If you're not playing, you cannot be expected to perform. Chelsea, having added to the squad in the summer, realizes the need for their young players to play. The club has 25 players currently out on loan. That's five more players on loan than Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal have combined.
The bottom line is, whether on a ‘B' team or on loan, playing time is paramount. Training and developing ‘good habits' isn't enough. The competitive nature of football at the top level is as much about confidence through experience and the psychological belief that one can succeed as it is proper training. Townsend has been given his chance and has run with it and England and Spurs are better off because of it.