As Tottenham Hotspur prepare to welcome the visit of Arsenal in this Sunday’s North London derby, for Tom Carroll, the meeting between the two teams is always likely to have something of a seminal meaning.
During the reverse fixture back in November, there wasn’t many positives to take out of the car wreckage that was their 5-2 defeat. But in amongst the inevitable gloom, Carroll’s 71st minute introduction marked the youngster’s first Premier League away appearance. And despite the circumstances, he did a lot more than simply make up the numbers.
Supporters had been given several fleeting glimpses of the 20-year-old in outings in both the League Cup and Europa League over the past 18 months, but in his cameo against Arsene Wenger’s side, we were given a taste as to whether Carroll had what it took to prosper at the very highest level. There was only so much you could take from his 20-minute cameo, but from what we witnessed, he wasn’t fazed about mixing it up with the big boys.
Now, planting a few passes against the Gunners when your side is down to 10-men isn’t quite the birth of a superstar, but there was a feeling that Carroll had perhaps made his first real breakthrough in this Tottenham side.
Yet since the turn of year, that proposed breakthrough hasn’t developed quite as much as supporters would have hoped. Understandably, in Spurs’ push for a top-four finish, Carroll has found playing time in the league difficult to come by and in the January addition of Lewis Holtby, alongside Scott Parker’s return to fitness, the former-Leyton Orient loanee has been pushed down the pecking order.
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But in the club’s reluctance to part with the duo of either Jake Livermore or Tom Huddlestone, Carroll now finds himself as arguably the club’s sixth choice midfielder, if we’re counting the versatile Holtby in the mix along with Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker. If this is the case, then it perhaps begs the question as to why a January loan move never looked like materializing.
Because for as important as it may be training alongside such top-class talent every day, it’s no substitute for long, hard game-time. And he’s not getting an awful lot of it at the moment – or not in the first-team, anyway.
Since his last appearance in the first-team during the 3-0 third-round FA Cup tie against Coventry City, Carroll’s turned out for Spurs’ incredibly successful U21 side four times, playing the full 90 on every occasion. The competition was devised, amongst other reasons, to give players struggling to bridge the gap between academy and first-team the chance to play in a competitive environment.
Yet while Carroll fits the exact profile of the sort of player who should be benefitting in the U21 Premier League, you can’t help but feel there could have been a few better options to further his development.
Given Spurs’ failure to make any real progress in either of the domestic cups and Andre Villas-Boas’ desire to make a real, sustained challenge for Europa League glory, Carroll has perhaps been left a short-changed in terms of attaining first-team football. But when he has played in both the League Cup and especially within Europe, he’s hardly looked like a player who’s made the step-up a little too quickly.
For example, the likes of Cristian Ceballos and Nathan Byrne – who Carroll played alongside in his last U21 fixture – are talented prospects in the Spurs youth set-up, but neither has proven themselves capable of making the step-up to the Tottenham first-team just yet.
In Carroll, Spurs have a midfielder that hasn’t just made a couple of fleeting appearances for the sake of making them – they have a player that’s made a sizeable impact in the games he’s played alongside seasoned professionals. If Villas-Boas knew Carroll wasn’t likely to feature much in his plans after January, would the next logical step not have been to see him carry on playing alongside seasoned professionals, rather than the likes of the more inexperienced Ceballos and Byrne?
This isn’t to say that there would have been a Premier League club willing to take him on loan in January, let alone one that would hand him first-team football. But Carroll has shown enough to suggest he’s more than ready to start playing regular football at senior level, be that in the Championship of maybe even with a Premier League side.
Given the superb work both Tim Sherwood and John McDermott have been doing in the Spurs academy, should they have felt they wanted to keep hold of Carroll and continue to develop him in-house, there’s no reason to think a short-loan spell away would have necessarily helped him.
But even including his time in the U21’s, Carroll has only played five times since the turn of the year. There would have been no point sending him out on loan simply for the sake of it and if the club couldn’t find him an adequate balance of first-team opportunities and a club that play a style of football which would suit him, then maybe he’s better off staying with the club.
Although it seems puzzling that following Villas-Boas’ decision to bring in Holtby and stick with Livermore and Huddlestone, that Carroll wasn’t given a spell away from White Hart Lane in January. He’s not exactly been racking up the games for the U21’s and for as great a concept that the competition is, having seen him perform so well in the Europa League, you can’t help but feel he’d perhaps learn more playing on either in England or even abroad, as has been the case with Ryan Mason.
Either way, Tom Carroll still has a bright future at the football club and at only 20-years-old, there’s a lot of football ahead of the youngster. Although it looks somewhat unlikely much of that will come over the next few months.