Andros Townsend has had a funny Summer.
At the turn of the year, the Tottenham winger must have thought his chances of going to Brazil as part of England’s World Cup squad were very good - he had, after all, been a prominent part of the national team’s final qualification games and Roy Hodgson seemed to be a big believer in what he could do from the right-hand side.
Townsend did actually physically make the trip to Brazil, but he spent the tournament betweeen ITV’s punditry desk and sprint training on secluded Brazilian beaches.
Probably not quite what he had in mind.
His hopes of making the final squad were eventually ended by a ligament injury in late April, and while that seemed cruel at the time it probably saved him from missing out on merit. As good as Townsend had been in isolated international performances, his early season form for Tottenham had all but evaporated by Christmas time and he eventually became one of the players marginalised by Tim Sherwood.
The end of April may have been the literal end of his World Cup hopes, but in the six weeks prior to that he had played just 152 minutes of football across all competitions.
Spurs fans have a difficult time assessing Andros Townsend. On the one hand he’s a very exciting player to watch and his ability with the ball at his feet is unquestionable, but on the other his talent is too often rendered redundant by his frequent failure to make the right decision at the right time. The problem with Townsend is not his ability to beat defenders and put himself into pertinent attacking situations, it’s his inability to take advantage of those situations.
It’s all very well having a player who is able to beat defenders, but if the end product is always a shot into orbit or an attempt to beat one man too many, then all the crowd-pleasing dribbling is essentially redundant. Football matches at the highest level are determined by paper-thin margins, and all things remaining equal Townsend is just not economic enough to be a viable first-team option for Mauricio Pochettino. Direct players are entertaining and supporters want to see shots raining down on an opponent’s goal, but there’s a line between exerting pressure and simply surrendering attacking possession, and Townsend doesn’t do a good enough job yet of staying on the right side that divide.
‘Yet’. That’s the important word.
Townsend turned twenty-three on Wednesday, and he has only really had a season-and-a-half of Premier League football. In the lower divisions - where he has spent the vast majority of his career to-date - his kind of playing style carries fewer risks and more rewards. Possession isn’t as important, missed chances aren’t as costly, and players with pace and skill are generally rarer - in all likelihood, most of the managers Townsend has worked under will have actively encouraged the very traits that are now so restricting.
“Stay on the touchline, Andros - get the ball, drive, shoot” - it’s not hard to imagine that instruction reverberating around a lower-league dressing-room.
Andre Villas-Boas showed a lot of faith in Townsend, and perhaps gave him too much responsibility too soon. The Portuguese’s tactical system was predicated - as it had been the season before with Gareth Bale - on moving possession around the pitch and putting a dynamic player in isolation with a defender. Townsend wasn’t afforded quite the same kind of freedoms, but he was clearly encouraged to be similarly expressive.
It didn’t work. Townsend had not played enough Premier League football to be a consistent difference-maker and, obviously, he wasn’t a good enough to warrant that kind of tactical responsibility.
So what has to change? And what needs to be done differently this season?
Everything needs to be made simpler. Townsend needs to be exposed to more game situations, but in a way that doesn’t compromise the overall effectiveness of the side.
The assumption with young players is that experience will automatically melt self indulgence away, and that’s really not the case. For every Cristiano Ronaldo - who learnt when and where to express himself, there is a Luis Nani - a player who stalled because of his failure to do the same. Players have to adapt their instincts around the needs of the team as a whole, and that’s something Mauricio Pochettino needs to impose upon Andros Townsend.
The Argentine’s system is theoretically perfect for the player - those wide-forward positions that Pochettino used so effectively at Southampton are essentially built for players with Townsend-like attributes. Instead of being asked to receive posession ten yards beyond the half-way line and being asked to carry the ball twenty or thirty yards, Townsend needs to exist purely in the final-third. And instead of being someone tasked with creating opportunities, he should really be used as someone who profits from the creativity and vision of others. When Christian Eriksen has the ball, for example, he shouldn’t be dropping off the play and waiting for a pass to feet, he should be bursting into the space behind a full-back and into the penalty-area.
Until his decision-making matures, he needs to be playing behind defenders rather than in-front of them.
It’s a subtle change but yet a significant one: encourage Andros Townsend to be an extension of this Tottenham side, but do not allow Tottenham to be reliant upon what Andros Townsend is capable of doing.