It’s been an up and down season for Andros Townsend. Sun Dream Team blogger Piers Barber takes a look at his form so far and what the future might hold.
After being forced to miss a month’s worth of action with a hamstring injury, Andros Townsend made a brief cameo from the bench against Everton. Having had his breakthrough season stopped in its tracks back in December, the remaining months of 2013/14 represent an important period of the young winger’s career. But, with Spurs under new management and his side’s injury problems easing, how much game time will England’s latest great hope be able to secure before the year is out?
Townsend is still just 22, but has already featured in the first teams of nine different clubs. Tottenham have been his only permanent side, but he has also played on loan for Yeovil Town, Leyton Orient, Milton Keynes Dons, Ipswich Town, Watford, Millwall, Leeds United, Birmingham City and Queens Park Rangers. It has only been in 2013/14, though, that he has threatened to make a long-awaited impact at the highest level of the game.
October 2013 was Townsend’s month. Capping off a fine start to the season for Spurs, the winger was called up to the England set-up and instantly flourished in his team’s vital Euro 2016 qualifiers. After scoring in the 4-1 win over Montenegro, he turned in arguably an even more effective performance a few days later, providing his national side with a constant attacking outlet in their 2-0 win over Poland. Demonstrating composure, pace, perseverance and an inclination to attack, he seemed odds-on to nail down the No.7 shirt for his national side on a permanent basis.
Yet Townsend’s career has not quite continued on the upward trajectory it appeared to be on during the season’s early months. Of course, this is largely down to the injury he suffered in Tottenham’s 2-1 Capital One Cup defeat to West Ham on 15th December, an unlucky affliction to befall a player finally getting a run of games at the highest level.
Yet in truth, Townsend’s form had started to dwindle even before his unfortunate injury. In fact, many Spurs fans are likely to admit with a wry smile that he has rarely successfully replicated his England form in a Spurs shirt. For the national side, he was a risk-taking breath of fresh air, a player eager to avoid resorting to a sideways pass when a path to goal was within his sights. His automatic inclination to take on his man – and his increased success rate in doing so – drew comparisons with his recently departed Tottenham team mate Gareth Bale.
All in all, Townsend has struggled to make the same kind of impact on the Premier League that he has during his brief international career. The root of this difficulty may well be the fact that he plays in a league which has quickly grown accustomed to his strengths, weaknesses, and focal points of attack. Before his injury, he had attempted 46 shots on goal, yet had scored only one – an over-hit cross. It is the type of form that has made his incisive, arrowed effort against Montenegro look like something of a collector’s item. His repeated tendency to cut inside, meanwhile, has consistently been criticised as one-dimensional. Although he is still young, his need to add variety to his game is clear.
Aside from his form, Townsend also faces a not inconsiderable challenge for his place in the Tottenham side from his potential England rival Aaron Lennon. Despite missing eleven games at the start of the season due to a foot injury, Lennon has experienced an extended and largely prosperous run in the team, especially since Tim Sherwood’s arrival. Lennon and Townsend may appear similar players – both are fast, tricky right-wingers, after all – but in fact offer rather different threats from a tactical perspective. Townsend, a left-footer, plays essentially as an inverted winger, always looking to find space away from the touchline, mostly with the intention of finding an angle for a shot. Lennon, meanwhile, is a touchline-hugging winger, who likes to get beyond the last defender in order to release a cross.
Their differing approaches have an impact on the role Kyle Walker is asked to play. Paired with Lennon, Walker works in tandem with the winger, receiving the ball and feeding it back to him down the line. When playing alongside Townsend, however, he is asked to provide more of an attacking outlet, offering width to the team as Townsend cuts inside. This approach, of course, is all well and good against an inferior team, but relying on a full-back for width can be risky against teams possessing dangerous players in wide areas on the break.
Both players have limitations. Lennon’s occasional aimless runs along the touchline and often sub-par crossing have been the subject of criticism throughout his career, as has been his continued reluctance to attack the goal directly. Last season, he attempted just 29 shots in the 34 appearances he made in the league. Townsend, on the other hand, attracts criticism for precisely the opposite reasons: for only ever cutting inside and shooting far too readily upon doing so. Both have been deemed overrated by different sections of Tottenham – and England – support: often too predictable and inconsistent, both possess substantial room for improvement.
Townsend has played only one game for Sherwood – the fixture against West Ham during which he picked up his injury. With both wingers now having returned from injury, Spurs’ inexperienced manager must make a difficult selection decision. Both players suit his desire to play direct football characterised by attacking play on the wings, although whilst Lennon has struggled to offer a goalscoring threat, Townsend rarely provides the crosses which Tottenham’s strikers have grown used to feeding off.
Townsend’s selection chances are at an advantage from his ability to play on either wing. He is clearly thought of highly within the game – in fact, if various rumours are to be believed, he may well have been the subject of a last-minute transfer day deadline bid from Manchester United.
With his drop in form and subsequent injury, Townsend has experienced the first major setbacks of his career as a first team player for Tottenham. From this point, his future could go one of two ways – if he fails to diversify his game, he could either fade into relative Premier League obscurity, or kick on to develop into the confident, skilful and incisive forward player he has often threatened to become. His conduct over the course of the next few months will have a mighty impact on the development of his subsequent career.