Tottenham’s Andros Townsend and the misleading assumptions about player age 5

Southampton have reportedly expressed some interest in Andros Townsend over the past week, although that seems to have begun and ended with a rather unrealistic £10m bid.

Still, it was interesting to note the reaction within the Tottenham corner of social media world: Townsend is perceived as expendable by some and a player who is destined to stay forever on the periphery on the squad.

Maybe, maybe not.

Making predictions about players’ futures is futile, because careers are so often determined by unforeseen intangibles, but Townsend is worth persevering with for the time-being and Spurs would be well-served by learning more about what they have before making any kind of decision about his future.

Townsend is quite obviously still a flawed player and he is frequently as wasteful as he is electrifying, but it’s worth remembering just how little football he has played at his current level.  At the time of writing, the winger has appeared in just 42 Premier League games (Tottenham & QPR) and that is clearly an asterisk against his deficiencies - it’s also pertinent that very few of those 42 appearances have been 90 minutes in length and that a considerable number of them have been from the substitutes’ bench.

We often use a player’s age as a barometer for their development and the earlier we identify talent in someone the better we assume that they’re going to be.  An eighteen year-old may perform at the same level as a twenty-three year-old, but because of the age differential the former will be assumed to be heading for a brighter future.

It’s not irrelevant and there’s a degree of reliability to it, but it’s far more accurate to involve the comparative numbers of games a player has appeared in within that discussion.  Of course, every athlete’s physical chemistry is different and they will experience their prime earlier  or later depending on their genetic make-up, their lifestyle, and their dedication to their career, but within a certain threshold age is not particularly relevant.

Andros Townsend has just turned twenty-three and has been on the footballing landscape for a long time now.  He has been an active professional since 2009 and therefore, by default, he no longer really occupies the ‘promising youngster’ category and the temptation is to believe that he should be further along his progression curve than he currently is.

But is that fair?  Remembering the statistic about his 42 Premier League appearances, consider this list of similarly-aged British players and their respective top-flight experience.

Aaron Ramsey (23) - 128 PL Games.

Jack Wilshere (22) - 87 PL Games.

Ross Barkley (20) - 49 PL Games.

Jay Rodriguez (25) - 68 PL Games.

Jordan Henderson (24) - 174 PL Games.

It’s interesting because of the context that it provides to our thinking.

Consider how we perceive Ross Barkley - an incredibly exciting player whose rawness is excused because of his age - and then remember that, in Premier League terms, he is not only more experienced than Townsend but has also had the benefit of a more prolonged sequence of appearances.

Their ages are, for all intents and purposes, an irrelevance.

All of the players in that list are perceived differently and all of them have occupied a different place within football’s psyche at one point or another.  Jordan Henderson and Aaron Ramsey are both very good examples of players who were perceived to be busts early in their career but who, after logging a certain number of minutes, started to creep up in our estimations - and in each case, and with specific reference to Townsend, it’s worth remembering just how long it took for them to reach that point.  Ramsey was a very ineffectual until around the 100-game mark, and Henderson’s evolution into a credible Liverpool starter came even later than that.

Imagine if Arsenal had off-loaded Ramsey eighteen-months ago, or if Jordan Henderson had accepted that loan move to Fulham last season.  What a mistake that would have been.

Jack Wilshere’s stagnation seems less about an error in talent projection and more related to his appearances, and Jay Rodriguez’s ability at this level only really became obvious the season after a campaign in which he’d featured in 35 games.  Wilshere, for example, doesn’t lack talent, he lacks an understanding of how to apply it properly.  The more someone like that is exposed to the trial and error world of the Premier League, the more he should theoretically be able to tailor his game around it and the more successful he should ultimately become.

And Andros Townsend has less Premier League pitch-time than all of those mentioned above.

What does that mean about his future?  Nothing really, but it does suggest that making judgements on players before they reach a certain quota of appearances is very risky indeed.  There’s no magic number and there isn’t a specific moment when every player universally starts to perform to the extent of his potential, but this is a reminder that Premier League footballers take longer to find their equilibrium than is commonly assumed - and that the age at which they first appear in front of us isn’t necessarily an indicator of how far in the game they will go.

“Yeah, but he’s already twenty-three…”

That’s really not as relevant as we’ve come to assume.

Follow @premleagueowl