Alex Pritchard: Villas-Boas' youth dilemma
Name: Alex Pritchard Age:19 Club: Tottenham Hotspur Position: Attacking midfield Nationality: English
Gareth Bale is not the only Tottenham player to have been linked to Real Madrid this season. Indeed, midway through October, a spate of reports emerged linking another of the club's British attacking midfielders to the Bernabeu - a player many Premier League fans have yet to discover.
Alex Pritchard, 19, is at the stage where his attention is no doubt turning to senior professional football. He will turn 20 before the campaign is out and, if reports are to be believed, will be out-of-contract next summer, giving Andre Villas-Boas somewhat of a dilemma in the coming months.
Pritchard has shone for Spurs at youth level. Tottenham's Under-21 side topped their league in the initial stage of the new Premier League academy competition and, despite dropping out of the NextGen Series at the group stage, did so despite impressive wins over Barcelona and Wolfsburg. Pritchard has been central to both these sides and has scored an impressive eight goals in 11 appearances in European competition the past two seasons.
Short and compact, Pritchard is wonderfully at ease with the ball at his feet. Often required to play from the flank, the attacking midfielder is capable of beating players on either side and has a neat selection of tricks with which to do so. Although not exceptionally fast, he possesses a burst of acceleration that is enough to unsettle defenders and demonstrates great awareness of the game around him.
Pritchard's greatest asset, though, is undoubtedly his wonderful right-footed delivery. Renowned for his free-kick abilities, the midfielder has also shown he is capable of delivering crosses to perfection for those in the area-as well as offering a long-range shooting threat from open play. At the other end, while not known for his defensive abilities, he has also shown himself to be a willing runner for his team when out of possession.
Tottenham know they potentially have a special talent on their hands. Indeed, he was called up to the substitutes' bench under former manager Harry Redknapp for two Europa League ties last campaign. But it is coming to the stage where they must hand him opportunities, or risk losing him to one of a long list of suitors. They reportedly fended off QPR interest in April, but cannot rely on doing so much longer if the Englishman does not begin to make inroads into the first team.
Spurs' youth setup is in healthy shape and it is no surprise that Liverpool recently prized away Under-21 coach Alex Ingelthorpe to coach their reserve side. Pritchard is one of several highly rated youngsters looking to make the step up to first-team level in the near future, giving Villas-Boas a welcome dilemma.
Villas-Boas has been under pressure since arriving at White Hart Lane-a somewhat unfair consequence of his disappointing spell at Chelsea last season. Media approval has swung from one game to the next and the Portuguese has stuck to a familiar group of players in all competitions to ensure positive results and successful implementation of his carefully planned systems. Thus far, everything is going rather well for the young manager from Oporto.
He has now had time to settle, though, and the rest of the season could now prove important for both his and the club's long-term ambitions.
Danny Rose, on loan at Sunderland, has received great praise for his individual performances this season, while Villas-Boas has also made use of young English players Steven Caulker, Jake Livermore, Tom Carroll, Kyle Naughton, Andros Townsend and Kyle Walker in his first team. All are promising talents for the future of both Spurs and the England national team.
Just below the surface, though, the likes of Pritchard, Adam Smith (now on loan at Millwall) and Ryan Mason are in desperate need of playing time. It could also be argued that, of the previous list, Carroll, Livermore and Townsend are in a similar situation.
After several years of very little emerging through the club's academy, it must be a delightful situation for Villas-Boas in which to find himself. The club, indeed, deserve great credit for their hard work at youth levels - and there are more first-team candidates to come beyond this grouping. Villas-Boas, though, must now carefully manage their introduction to senior levels, even if it means utilising the loan market.
There is no issue with players reaching 20 or 21 without having played for the senior side at their parent club. In fact, there are many more arguments against introducing players too young. They do, though, need to be getting competitive football somewhere.
The NextGen Series and Under-21 Premier League are a start for Pritchard, with both providing regular action against decent opposition. However, the time has come for him to take the next step. Villas-Boas must act decisively - either by integrating him into the first team or finding a worthwhile loan opportunity for the youngster to get regular action until the summer.
Failure to do either could be a major mistake with his contract ticking and several other sides willing to promise a quicker path to the top for a man considered to be one of England's best young prospects. A big 12 months in his development lie ahead and Tottenham must take the initiative in ensure that progress continues.