A year ago, Marcus Edwards finally signed his first professional contract with Tottenham. The implication was that, having received assurances over his route to the first-team, Edwards was sufficiently satisfied to commit his future to the club for two years.
Twelve months on, the now-eighteen year-old is yet to be seen in a Premier League game.
Spurs are having a quiet summer and remain the only Premier League club not to have completed a transfer. However, in the coming days an agreement will be reached to sell Kyle Walker to Manchester City and, given the size of the likely fee, that should increase their options in the market.
But while the supporters have grown steadily more concerned by Daniel Levy’s apparent dallying, Edwards has been making an impression in Georgia with England’s U19 side, who have progressed through to Saturday’s European Championship final. Though used primarily as an impact sub rather than a starter, he’s nonetheless been one of Keith Downing’s most valuable players: winning the group game with Holland courtesy of an electric burst to the goal line and, in almost identical fashion, mortally wounding the Czech Republic defence in the last seconds of Wednesday’s semi-final.
Edwards has been floating in the development ether for sometime. Like Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole and Michael Owen before him, he’s existed in a two-dimensional way – the hollow wunderkind who everyone knows to be great, but few people have actually watched. Even in the YouTube era, when every pass, cross, or run a player makes from the age of fourteen onwards is lovingly documented, contextual appreciation for what Edwards actually is remains scarce. Even those with access to detailed scouting utilities have, until now, remained largely in the dark; after all, the odd goal or the occasional piece of skill tells you little about a player’s suitability to Premier League life.
So, in that respect, his run with the u19s has been highly valuable. Youth football may not always be a reliable barometer and it can exaggerate a player’s strengths, but it tends to at least be accurate in portraying his weaknesses.
At this point in his development, Edwards offers feast or famine. The whispers about his talent are well-founded because, quite clearly, he possesses the twists, the turns, and the low centre of gravity to beat and humiliate defenders on a regular basis; give him the ball around the penalty area and he will show a wonderful lack of inhibition. Encouragingly, his level of expression hasn’t dimmed as he’s moved up the age groups.
However, the higher level has revealed some caveats. What separates Edwards from a more rounded player like Mason Mount, for instance, is the breadth and reliability of his influence. The two perhaps aren’t destined to play the same role as seniors (Mount is a traditional number 10, Edwards naturally more peripheral) but their respective contributions to the construction phases of possession are noticeable different. Mount appreciates the value of the safe pass, whereas Edwards’s risk-taking isn’t limited to the final-third; when he has the ball, his reflexive impulse is to be as dynamic as possible.
It’s a common affliction in young players, especially those who have been able to exert great attacking influence on games as teenagers. The difficulty lies in rationing that quality and proportioning it in a way which doesn’t put a team at risk – take chances with the ball as a professional in the Premier League, for instance, and bad things tend to happen. Edwards is yet to learn that or is at least yet to have his fingers burned in an instructive way; trying to effect the game with every touch can change the score at the other end of the pitch, too.
There are probably many reasons why he didn’t make a Premier League squad in 2016/17 – not excluding injury, of course – but that slight naivety offers the most plausible explanation. Similarly, while some Spurs fans have taken solace during this quiet summer in knowing that Edwards is now a year older and theoretically capable of playing a bigger part in 2017/18, seeing him outside the Check-a-trade trophy or the very earliest rounds of the league cup remains unlikely.
In a way, he’s unlucky. Like all fringe players at White Hart Lane (Wembley), his rate of progress would be greatly hastened by involvement in as many first-team games as possible. Unfortunately, without the luxury of low-key, winnable Europa League matches – once an annual guarantee – his window of opportunity has become incredibly narrow. The inefficiencies on display in Georgia are all curable, but only by exposure to the consequences which exist at that highest level; it’s a catch-22 situation – he won’t progress until he’s exposed to the brutality of the senior learning-curve, but Spurs no longer play many games in which they enjoy advantages which allow them to take such risks.
There’s nothing unusual in that: this is a situation which all leading Premier League clubs face with their developing players. With Edwards it’s intensified, though. The reports of his ability are so overwhelming and those fleeting highlights are so seductive, that there becomes a demand for urgency which just can’t exist.
Edwards remains fascinating. In time, what he can do will presumably far outweigh what he can’t. For now, though, he remains an imbalanced player who shouldn’t be pushed under the bright lights prematurely. Sometimes youth players surge, making exponential improvements in very short spaces of time, but that should only be the hope with Edwards, not the immediate expectation.