There was a time, not so long ago in fact, that Reo Griffiths, an 18-year-old academy graduate, would have seen himself playing in the Tottenham starting XI. Especially after a season in which he scored 34 goals in 34 U18 Premier League games, including four goals and three assists in one match against bitter rivals Arsenal.
Griffiths had already endeared himself to Spurs fans by virtue of such a remarkable goal-scoring season, but he'll never be seen in the Lilywhite of Tottenham. Instead of signing with Mauricio Pochettino, the teenager opted to make France, namely Lyon, his home for the next four years.
Spurs are due six years of training compensation, but it's wildly beside the point as they miss out on a fantastic talent.
But is this a result of a higher standard of football in North London? What does this tell us about the current passage to the first team? Or is it nothing to be worried about, and simply part of a wider trend of young Englishman seeking opportunities abroad?
Raising the bar for the next generation
When Harry Kane broke into the Tottenham first team in 2014, it changed the game. Going from strength to strength, the England captain — a statement in itself — has scored 21, 25, 29 and 30 Premier League goals in consecutive seasons since, winning two domestic Golden Boots and one at the Russian World Cup.
In doing so, however, Kane perhaps altered the perception of young players. "If you were a seven out of ten four years ago," Pochettino explained, "you were going to have the possibility to play." Hark back to 2014 and the respective struggles of Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado, and a 34-goal-a-season U18 striker — in the absence of Kane — would have been thrust into the limelight.
REUTERS/Toru Hanai2018 is different, though, and now youngsters "need to be an eight or an eight-and-a-half" to get their chance in the first team.
With sustained success and regular appearances in the Champions League, alongside the eternally increasing spending of the top six, and the pressure is higher than ever. It means unless a teenager is absolutely exceptional — such as Manchester City's Phil Foden — their route to the first XI is treacherous.
"The demands are higher than before..."
Increased levels of current ability aren't the only requisite attributes for a path into the first team, however. Players need "mental strength, physical condition and everything" to get near the starting XI and maybe it's the case that Griffiths just doesn't have what the demanding Argentine wants.
The striker dominated U18 level where he had a marked physical advantage on his opponents, but failed to score in the handful of Premier League 2 appearances in 2017/18, and similarly failed to transition to the UEFA Youth League.
Perhaps Pochettino has seen something his U18 goal record masks?
Then there's the point of attitude. Griffiths allegedly cancelled his own contract following his exclusion from the club's pre-season tour, and there's every chance the Argentine — based on previous examples — didn't react too kindly to this negativity.
Wider trends of youth players
Although there was scope for Griffiths to make a few appearances as Kane's understudy, given Fernando Llorente's struggles, his move to Lyon is simply part of a wider trend of young English players seeking more game-time abroad.
Jadon Sancho was one high profile teenager that swapped Manchester for Dortmund, and has since thrived at the Bundesliga side. Ademola Lookman, too, spent the second half of last season at RB Leipzig, whilst Tottenham's own Keanan Bennetts signed for Borussia Monchengladbach, the same club Reece Oxford joined on loan last summer.
But why are they all moving abroad? Well, Oxford made eight West Ham appearances in three years before his loan, Sancho found himself crowded out by Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva, whilst then-Everton manager Sam Allardyce told Lookman that they couldn't rely on him with the club in crisis.
Given Tottenham and Pochettino's reputation as the champions of English youth development in the Premier League, it's somewhat concerning to see Griffiths leave. However, the point to make is that whilst it's harder to reach first team level at Tottenham now than it was four years ago, the path isn't completely blocked.
Harry Winks is just one example of persistence, and Tottenham, too, regularly cast keen eyes over the progress of 17-year-old Oliver Skipp and Luke Amos — both of whom impressed in the International Champions Cup — and Tashan Oakley-Boothe.
All that's changed is what constitutes as 'ready' for that level. Griffiths thought he was, Pochettino otherwise. Hence, the 18-year-old's premature departure. Whilst it's disappointing to miss out on this talent, it doesn't mean that others will necessarily follow suit in the future.
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