Tottenham usurp Man Utd in the Premier League's homegrown stakes
On Monday evening, Louis van Gaal's last remaining hope of winning a trophy in his debut Manchester United campaign disappeared. Arsenal's 2-1 victory at Old Trafford in the FA Cup was sealed by a goal from Danny Welbeck -- the forward whom Van Gaal considered surplus to requirements this summer.
As Welbeck -- rightly -- celebrated the goal, the debate started about whether United should have retained his services, especially considering the struggles of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao up front this season. But that missed the point: Welbeck wasn't valued by Manchester United supporters simply for his footballing ability, but also because he was one of their own.
That's the song Tottenham fans now sing about Harry Kane. It's not a particularly clever chant -- there's no rhyming, it's to the same tune as every other football chant of the past five years and, considering the photos of a young Kane in an Arsenal shirt, it's probably not even true -- yet it's telling that Spurs supporters are singing about this element of Kane's rise. The song isn't about Kane banging in goals, or defeating Arsenal, or promoting his England credentials. It's about Kane being produced by Tottenham.
As Premier League clubs have gradually become huge corporations and recruited high-quality players from across the globe, fewer homegrown stars have broken into the first teams, which is precisely why they're valued so highly.
It's been interesting, for example, to see the way Arsenal have promoted their young British players recently, especially considering Arsene Wenger did more than anyone else to promote the recruitment of foreigners towards the end of the 1990s. Nationality itself is incidental -- Arsenal will play the best XI regardless of what it says on their passport -- so the club's emphasis upon these players suggests they were wary of a growing disconnect between fans and players. A couple of youth products like Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere have worked wonders.
Producing good young talent on a consistent basis is actually quite difficult in English football, which has stricter regulations than other countries in terms of how far youngsters are allowed to travel to train with clubs while still at school. Something equivalent to Barcelona's La Masia academy would be much harder to pull off in England, which is why it's so impressive when a club like Southampton produce such an incredible array of young talent -- Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to name but three -- in quick succession.
Tottenham, though, deserve considerable praise too. Of their starting XI for the Capital One Cup final defeat to Chelsea, four players came through their academy. Kane joined the club at 11 following spells at both Arsenal and Watford, while Andros Townsend was picked up even earlier, at the age of 8. The two central midfielders joined Spurs much later: Ryan Mason was 16, and Nabil Bentaleb 17, having had experience of other youth systems in both France and Belgium.
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To have four academy products in your first XI is hugely impressive. It's also worth considering that Spurs have three young Englishmen in the defence who, while not coming through their own academy, joined Spurs at a very young age. Danny Rose came through the system at Leeds -- another fine academy that has consistently produced serious talent like James Milner and Aaron Lennon -- but never played a professional game, and joined at 17; Kyle Walker played a few games for Sheffield United but signed for Spurs at 19; Eric Dier was at Sporting Lisbon and arrived last summer at 20.
OK, so they're not academy players -- they don't quite fall into the category of "one of our own" -- but Spurs caught them while they were still developing. Therefore, not only can supporters relate to them, but the club can mould them into the type of footballer they desire.
This is where Manchester United once specialised. The Class of '92, which featured Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville, formed the backbone for United's most dominant years under Sir Alex Ferguson. While not quite as high-profile, the likes of Welbeck, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Tom Cleverley provided that identity too.
Now, Manchester United have never felt less like Manchester United. There are a few academy prospects around the squad -- Jonny Evans, Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson, Paddy McNair -- but none are guaranteed starters, and the latter three are yet to demonstrate they're good enough for a long career at the club.
Now United and Spurs are in a peculiar position. United are still unquestionably the more dominant force, but for years Tottenham felt like a loose collection of unrelated players assembled somewhat clumsily, and that's now United. Where United were once the club who produced solid, reliable professionals who epitomised the club's values, that's now Tottenham.
Something similar applies on the pitch, too. Mauricio Pochettino's side are playing high-tempo, heavy pressing football. The results still need to improve, but there's an obvious approach. Van Gaal, on the other hand, is changing formation every week, doesn't appear to know his best combination in any particular zone and is still struggling to convince.
There's an obvious link between the two concepts, and while various clubs have been guilty of promoting the "The Barca/Liverpool/Arsenal/United/etc. Way" as a marketing statement rather than a true philosophy, there's no doubt raising talented footballers together reaps rewards.
Indeed, in the era of staggering transfer fees and wages, it's fantastic that developing players still bring benefits. Four of the outstanding Champions League/European Cup winners over the past 20 years -- Ajax in 1995, Manchester United in 1999, Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 and Bayern Munich in 2013 -- have placed a huge emphasis upon packing the side with homegrown players.
Van Gaal was responsible for that Ajax side, of course, and throughout this career has favoured youth. United, meanwhile, have a proud tradition of youth development: going back over 3,700 games and 80 years, they've included an academy product in every single matchday squad, an outstanding record.
Perhaps this season is something of an anomaly, and someone like Wilson will become one of their leaders in the next few years. Currently, though, in terms of both the nature of the playing staff and the overall strategy, Tottenham have a clearer identity than United. That might not play a significant part in determining the outcome of Sunday's match, but it's an incredible role reversal.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.