Prior to their Premier League season-opening win over West Ham United, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino suggested as much to the Daily Star's Chisanga Malata: "Yes like Townsend and other players he’s in the squad and I think he’s an important player."
Townsend's status as someone whose future is being speculated upon is a product of his self-described "breakthrough" 2013-14 season.
After breaking into the Tottenham first team, the wide man's daring, speed-enhanced style caught the eye in some impressive performances for club and country. The increased exposure also made him a marked man.
Under closer scrutiny, Townsend's limitations—or, more kindly, areas in need of improvement—as a player came into further focus. To that extent, poor performances late last year and in early 2014 (though not aided by two lengthy absences from injury) have led to questions over his role at Spurs.
Yet, it appears Pochettino and Spurs have decided Townsend is a project worth persevering with. If so, it is a good decision.
It is easy to understand the 23-year-old's appeal.
He is a genuinely fast winger with an ability to shift gears and use the resulting momentum to take players on. He is a solid passer, has a good shot and does not give up easily.
The latter is good in terms of work ethic, but it has also come forth in him being too headstrong at times.
Townsend's worst displays last season were marked by a lack of ideas beyond getting his head down, cutting inside from his usual position of right wing and firing long-range shots. The numbers (chiefly two goals and zero assists) did not warrant this persistent strategy, nor did its decreasing contribution to effectively sending opposition teams into retreat.
Whether the line of attack was of Townsend's own volition or what he was instructed to do—as he hinted to The Observer's Paul Wilson last November—it was clear greater creative thinking was required. Unfortunately, his injury problems led to a situation where he had again moved down the pecking order.
Early signs from pre-season and the West Ham game are that Townsend is beginning to learn from this main criticism of his game.
A second-half substitute, Townsend helped Spurs push West Ham back for the first time in the game. Where Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Aaron Lennon had struggled to penetrate the Hammers back line, the replacement's directness forced the issue.
There were familiar instances of Townsend driving in from the right and testing the goalkeeper, Adrian. But they were smartly selected, the best options at those respective moments. He also used his dribbling to attack from wide and create angles and space linking up with his team-mates in central areas.
Not everything came off, but it helped Spurs to a place where they were able to grab a late winner through Eric Dier.
Townsend applying such variation to his game on a consistent basis would make him invaluable to Pochettino in attacking midfield.
With the likes of Eriksen and Lamela, the emphasis in their work is on intricacy—or at least a more cultured means of creating openings in the final third. Based on pre-season, even Lennon could be utilised more frequently for his short, sudden bursts of speed inside, rather than the wing work he built his reputation on.
Against West Ham their combinations flattered to deceive. But it is early days, and Pochettino's adherence to an attacking philosophy will mean he is happy to persist with them honing their roles as chief instigators.
So long as a more thorough thought process does emerge—away from his predominant, previous shoot-on-sight policy—Townsend's basic attributes are sufficiently different that he is also an option that cannot be overlooked. That is, whether as a right- or left-winger, off the bench as an impact substitute (like against West Ham) or as a starter encouraged to test and stretch one-dimensional defences from the first minute.
Speaking to his club's official website last month, Townsend was well aware of what is at stake for him this time around:
It’s a big season for me. Last season was my breakthrough for club and country and it’s important for me to build on that and show more consistency.
I’m 23 next week and that will come with age. Hopefully this season I’ll build on what I started last season, try to get a sustained place in the team and not just have a good start like last season.
Under contract until 2017, Townsend's future may lie beyond White Hart Lane in the years to come.
For now, he is still a sufficiently talented prospect worth Pochettino's time. With continued work from both player and his coaching staff, Townsend could yet become a legitimate star for Tottenham. At the very least, a little more refinement should see him become a reliable and regular contributor.
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