Opinion: From relegation to the PL2 summit: The incredible turnaround of the Tottenham academy

After a long and strenuous season in 2022/23, Spurs Under 21s faced the drop going into the last game of the season. However, it was not entirely in their hands, as Wolves held Spurs’ fate tightly.

Heading into the final game, Spurs needed a win and for Wolves to lose by a considerable margin for Spurs to stay up on goal difference. Spurs defeated West Ham by a 1-0 margin, and Wolves lost to Manchester City; however, this was only by one goal. The goal difference was not enough to keep Spurs in the league, and they were destined for relegation.

Nevertheless, the Premier League wanted to change the league system for the U21s. Before, it was two divisions made up of category-one academies with a relegation and promotion system.

The Premier League felt it was best that “For the 2023/24 season, there will be only one division made up of clubs with Category One Academies. At present, there are 26 such clubs.” They felt “The removal of relegation introduces positive jeopardy; it supports clubs making development-first decisions, and minimises the impact of relegation on future groups of U21 players.” (Premier League)

This change meant the Spurs U21 team would stay in the top flight another season and could face the best academy teams in the country. However, the team would have to show vast improvements from the season prior to prove their worth to Ange Postecoglou and the U21 coach Wayne Burnett.

The previous season was no doubt a disaster, but much of what went wrong was out of the coaching staff and players’ hands. The team was plagued by injuries to some of its most key players and had to rely on players from the Under 18 squad to make up the numbers.

There was also a serious lack of cohesion between the academy squad and the first team, with Antonio Conte reluctant to use any of the U21 players in either of the cups. The lack of integration throughout the season meant that Simon Davies joined Spurs in the summer as the academy director. He would be responsible for the framework that surrounded the academy development path and ultimately producing as many talents that were of a high enough standard to be integrated into the first team.

With the start of the season looming over, Spurs kept a relatively similar team heading into the first match against Manchester City. The difference this season was they had been rejuvenated and had the maturity and experience from the season prior to work simultaneously with their raw talent, this left them with a surprising advantage.

Their first fixture set the tone immediately for what was to come in the following weeks as Spurs put on a superb show against reigning PL2 champions Man City. It took just six minutes for Spurs to find their foothold in the game when Jamie Donley played a short pass to Yago Santiago, who took the ball in his stride and curled a shot past the keeper at his near post. Spurs didn’t stop there, they finished the game as 5-0 winners and set the tone for what would be a superb start to the season. (Spurs Web)

The rich vein of form continued into the next game, showing a polished display beating Newcastle 4-1. Santiago put on another stellar performance scoring his second consecutive brace.

The U21 front line was firing on all cylinders. Donley, Santiago, Jude Soonsup-Bell, and Will Lankshear seemed to have an almost synoptic bond between them, which allowed them to tear apart defences across the league.

The success has been crafted behind closed doors with Wayne Burnett’s sessions. The focus has been on the players’ developments rather than the results. Burnett feels that “we’ve been more consistent and we’ve developed those behaviours and habits, and I think it’s revealed itself in some of the games.” (Tottenham Hotspur)

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Photo by Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Tottenham U21s remain undefeated in Premier League 2

This Spurs U21 side is the only team undefeated in the PL2, and each of the nine wins has come from an impressive performance on the day. This is largely reflective of the goal record: scoring 30 goals and conceding just eight. Despite this low volume of goals conceded, Burnett is striving for more and is “disappointed that we’ve conceded as many goals as we have done”. This hunger for near perfection has been the driving force behind this young group of players.

Despite the huge success in the PL2, the squad struggled in the EFL League Trophy, where they finished third in the group and struggled at times in the physical games against Cambridge and Peterborough, but showed gritty determination to win on penalties against Colchester. It was always going to be a competitive competition playing against senior teams, but the players showed promise in the losses and scored in both of these games.

In the U21 Premier League Cup, they once again showed their dominance, winning all of their games and comfortably topping their group. There were moments of doubt, but in the dying moments of the opening game, a late Harvey White winner put them at the top of the group. In the following game, they were tested by a strong Bristol City side.

The Spurs squad was weakened by junior international games, but nevertheless, they secured three points after Soonsup-Bell scored a 90+6 penalty goal to satisfy the large volume of Spurs fans situated in the South West. The next two games in the groups saw comfortable performances and two wins over Sunderland and Peterborough.

After this stellar start to the season and an injury-ridden first-team squad, many of the U21s squad have been in and around the first team. Donley, Santiago, Ashley Phillips, and Alfie Dorrington all trained with the squad and featured on the bench for a series of fixtures in December.

The sense of pride is huge within all the academy staff, and in particular, Burnett feels that “Whenever an academy player gets anywhere near the first team, we celebrate that.” This proves “that if you do prepare, and commit and get ready for what is coming, you might have an opportunity.”

Due to the large volume of injuries in the squad, the U21 team has been vital for making up the numbers on the bench. Not only this, but Donely made his senior debut in the dying minutes against Man City; this ultimately showed the trust that the coaching staff and Postecoglou have in Donley to give him his debut in such a high-pressure game.

Donley was also given his FA Cup debut in a tightly contested game against Burnley. He was entrusted with a larger share of minutes coming on in the 83rd minute. This was a more challenging task for Donley, as he was brought on to play as a makeshift midfielder rather than his typical role as an attacking midfielder or leading the line.

Donley will most likely continue to be part of the matchday squads but also feature for the U21s, as he has been superb this season for them and currently leads the league in assists.

With Donely representing the first team, Lankshear has stepped up on a number of occasions and currently sits on eight league goals. Most recently he put in a stellar performance against Southampton scoring the winner and a brace. This performance was complemented by a sturdy showing from young centre-back Dorrington who led the defensive line with a special prowess.

After a hugely successful start to the season for the U21s, there was no doubt going to be interest in loaning some of the players for the remainder of the season. Josh Keeley was the first to depart and has joined National League side Barnett for the rest of the season, which will help them in their pursuit of promotion.

He was shortly followed by Phillips, who joined Championship side Plymouth Argyle on loan. This deal will see Phillips be a vital part of their side striving to stay in the league after gaining promotion last season. Matthew Craig was the latest to leave on loan, and he has joined League Two side Doncaster Rovers.

Another player who could also depart this January is Jude Soonsup-Bell. After signing for Spurs in January 2023, he was immediately afflicted with injuries. This season, he turned a corner and has been an integral part of the U21 success, scoring nine goals and assisting five times. It has been reported that he has attracted a range of suitors across the Championship and League One. (Fabrizio Romano)

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