Mauricio Pochettino finally proved right as ‘mini Messi’ comes back to haunt Tottenham
Spurs news: Former Tottenham youngster Marcus Edwards produced a dazzling display as new club Sporting CP beat his old club in the Champions League on Tuesday night
Marcus Edwards up against Eric Dier during the Champions League clash between Sporting CP and Tottenham Hotspur
Marcus Edwards is a name that may not have been particularly well known by English football fans. But he sure will be now.
The moment he signed on the dotted line at Portuguese club Vitoria it brought an end to Tottenham Hotspur’s association with a player expected to become one of English football’s brightest prospects.
The 20-year-old has that touch of magic, that natural talent that you just can’t coach into a player. Dribbling past opponents is second nature for him with his low centre of gravity and that’s allied with an eye for goal and a pass, wonderful technique and the ability to take a mean set piece.
He showed all that in abundance on Tuesday night. Against Tottenham no less. Edwards, now with Sporting CP, was the standout performer as the Portuguese side stunned Spurs in the Champions League with two late goals in a 2-0 win.
Mini Messi, so nicknamed by then Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, almost lived up to that title with one outstanding moment in a dreary first half, twice beating Eric Dier, dribbling deep into Tottenham territory before playing a neat one-two and seeing his poked shot superbly saved by Hugo Lloris. It was a joy to behold.
So why did Tottenham let him go? Particularly given that nickname from Pochettino? When he left in 2019 he was not the full package. And that is why, rather than becoming another Pochettino-developed young success story, he left Spurs in his rear-view mirror, with the Argentine’s blessing, to try his luck in another country.
There was a real belief inside Tottenham’s academy that they had a superstar in the making in Edwards. He had been with the club since the age of six and quickly became a rising talent through the age groups with the approval of senior coaching staff after inviting him to join in first team sessions.
It all led to Edwards ‘ Spurs debut as a 17-year-old – a bright 10-minute cameo at White Hart Lane in the League Cup against Gillingham in 2016, which showcased his trademark dribbling and one confident rocket of a shot over the crossbar. Before the match, Pochettino had said: “His qualities … it’s only looks – his body and the way that he plays – remember a little bit from the beginning of Messi.”
The pained look on his press officer’s face beside him said it all about the lofty comparison and, while it was not the fault of that statement, Edwards’ Spurs career never progressed beyond that exciting appearance against the Gills. Injury played its part: an ankle problem kept him out just when Pochettino was starting to get really excited about his prospects as did an operation to remove his tonsils.
When he returned to action it was to continue with the development squad and the Under-23s, as well as the Under-19s side in the UEFA Youth League. Edwards shone in those continental matches, scoring goals aplenty and earning himself a European Golden Boy nomination, placing him among the brightest prospects in the game.
However, there were some concerns behind the scenes during this period. Some club staff would joke that it was a celebratory moment when Edwards would eventually pass to a younger team-mate on the pitch rather than keeping the ball or moving it on to fellow older players in the group. Getting him to track back and defend was a constant battle for his academy coaches.
Pochettino then wrote in his book ‘Brave New World’ about Edwards, that Messi comparison and “behavioural problems”.
“Sometimes I wonder whether it was wise to liken him to Messi. He’s only 17. At that age, Messi was making his debut for a Barcelona side featuring Ronaldinho,” he wrote.
“They’re from different families, backgrounds and cultures. One of them thinks like an Argentinian and the other like an Englishman. Marcus is still in the process of adapting to the rigours or being a professional, which require you to act and think differently, be disciplined and make sacrifices.
“He has authority and behavioural problems, and we have to look at the bigger picture to find out the root cause. There was a time when it would have been seen as impossible for him to play professionally, let alone make it in the Premier League.
“Our challenge is to get him to accept the pathway we’ve laid out for him, and it’s our responsibility to make sure he behaves himself when he trains with the first team (with all the rules and obligations this involves). He has no shortage of talent, but there are gaps to be filled: he has to learn to score ugly, run more and be committed.”
There was also a long saga over trying to get him to sign his first professional deal with the club which upset those behind the scenes at Tottenham. Edwards has since admitted, to the Independent, that “I know I was a bit difficult when I was going through the academy”.
Pochettino admitted the following season ahead of a Carabao Cup tie with Barnsley that Edwards was not ‘physically ready’ to be involved in his first team squad, but retained hope that one day he would get there. Later that day the midfielder instead put in a disinterested performance for the Under-23s against Swansea City, rarely chasing the ball down, and in front of a crowd of 200 or so Spurs fans, proved Pochettino right.
It was far removed from his display the previous week when he shone in front of the BT Sport cameras, captaining the Under-19s in the UEFA Youth League against Borussia Dortmund and scoring twice.
Edwards was far from finding his way back into the first team set up and went on an ill-fated loan to Norwich City in January 2018. Then Canaries boss Daniel Farke said after his signing: “There is no pressure on this signing. If it works, we can have some fun with him. If not, it is more a problem for Marcus.
“There is no doubt with the ball he is one of our best players. But without it, he has to grow up a bit. That was the reason he didn’t play for Tottenham. They have a good squad but he is still one of the best there with the ball. He has to be more grown up in his attitude.”
In April, with Edwards having only got six minutes of football under his belt, Norwich cut the loan short for ‘personal reasons’ while his time-keeping came under fire from those inside the Canaries set-up.
“I think there were loads of things with that one. I had a back injury when I went there. I was so eager to go, I just got through the clearance training to see if you’re fit. But when I got there, and trained, I felt my back. I was in and out of training for two or three months. So that’s the main reason,” he told the Independent.
On his time-keeping, he admitted that “towards the end of the loan” he “started to get a bit frustrated”, but added: “I think maybe it was a bit unfair. The whole situation that happened at Norwich, it already played on to what Pochettino said. Even though I was definitely a lot younger then, that’s when I was growing up. It was a big misunderstanding.
“I feel as though, once Daniel Farke said it out loud, that is when I got misunderstood a bit. Because I felt I had already grown up. I thought I was already grown up, and all the attitude stuff, that was when I was going through the academy. When I hit 19, I felt I was a bit more mature. That’s why I feel I was misunderstood.”
To the outside world, those quotes from managers about him and little things, like the young midfielder’s reluctance to smile for posed photographs – you’d do well to find one – have not helped the overall ‘attitude’ claims. But time away from the English spotlight has done him good.
He was picked for TV duties by BT Sport after the game against Tottenham on Tuesday night and appeared humble. He could have revelled in beating the team that let him go, but chose not to.
“I wouldn’t say extra special [to beat Tottenham], it was a strange feeling playing against Spurs,” he stated. “I was there so long. It feels great, winning at the end like that as we put in a hard shift. We deserved that, we showed how we can play.
“I prepared the same, focused and just treated it like every other game. Of course, it’s my home, of course I want to come back there one day [to the Premier League].”
After 17 goals in 77 appearances for Vitoria, Edwards was snapped up by Sporting in January and already has five goals in 17 league games and his first in the Champions League against Frankfurt last week.
There will be many watching on interestedly at how his career now progresses, having not made the most of his talent in England. He is proving his star can shine in another country and starting to live up to that mini Messi tag finally. He’s proving to himself and others that his talent is too good to simply fade away.