Imagine for a moment you’re the director of football for a European club with an average of £10 million to spend every January. You have a team capable of competing for Europa League qualification every year via the most competitive top six in world soccer. And with the right coach, you may even sneak into the top four with a parcel of top class overachieving.
Your mandate is maddeningly simple: replace whatever world class talent you sell on with gems that’ve yet to hit their market peak and cultivate enough depth to get you through a physical season in the league. It’s the latter bullet point that causes the churn.
In this, clubs of this caliber are not unlike a farmer overstuffing a duck to produce the fatty liver that becomes pricey foie gras in some smoke-dark bistro in Montreal. The process itself is a bit vile when you allow yourself to ruminate on it: force-feeding an animal to engorge its liver to 10 times its usual volume for the sake of your palate. Out of some Louis XIV fever dream.
And so teams shoehorn players into positions already crammed to the hilt with readymade depth in the name of competition. This is essentially what happened to DeAndre Yedlin at Tottenham.
Spurs didn’t need a right back when they brought Yedlin on board from the Seattle Sounders in January. They had Kyle Walker, and they had Kyle Naughton, and while neither possessed an impregnable hold on the spot, both had a notable leg-up on Yedlin in league and national familiarity. And arguably in ability, too. Naughton was quickly sold on in the January window – not long after Yedlin arrived – and Spurs replaced his spot with the signing of Kieren Trippier in the summer. Depth. Foie gras.
Yedlin, staring up at an easy first-choice right back in Walker and his newly minted backup in Trippier, was promptly loaned off to Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland in the first week of September. While Walker’s solidified his hold on a right back spot he was probably never giving up in the first place, Yedlin trekked north.
In reality, Yedlin was never in a particularly great position to succeed. Between the end of his 2014 season with the Sounders and his first appearance for the Black Cats in a League Cup match on Sept. 22, 2015, Yedlin played all too few minutes of actual first team soccer, all of it for the national team and just about all of it in the midfield. Jurgen Klinsmann remains bizarrely wedded to the notion that Yedlin can work as a midfielder, which he cannot, and in the meantime he started a microscopic amount of games in 2015. Few appearances seemed to augur club minutes, good as they were. National team soccer can only do so much.
Which means that between Oct. 25, 2014 (Yedlin’s last game as an MLS player) and Sept. 22, 2015 – a span of nearly 11 months – Yedlin almost never played a 90-minute match in his position of record. And the few stints he did have, he was pulled out of position.
No wonder Yedlin offered this insight in July, hardened by it all.
“It’s tough,” Yedlin said. “With Seattle, I had to prove myself as well. It’s no different. This process has taken a little bit longer and I expected that. It’s another level up. I’m working hard every day and just trying to improve and hopefully prove that I deserve a spot.”
Things were finally trending upward for Yedlin since his move to Sunderland. He provided an assist in an otherwise forgettable 4-1 League Cup loss to Manchester City, and a week later he earned his first ever EPL start in Sunderland’s 2-2 draw against West Ham. Yedlin earned steady reviews for his 90 minutes, despite the fact that Sunderland gave up a 2-0 lead and stayed winless in eight matches.
Yedlin was good, too. He completed 81 percent of his passes and settled into that comfortable nock just between a recklessly attack-minded fullback and a scared one.
Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers wasn’t the only EPL coach to be severed from his team this week. Advocaat stepped down shortly after the West Ham draw left Sunderland joint bottom of the league with Newcastle. The Black Cats are about to get their fifth manager in two years.
What all this means for Yedlin is unclear, but look no further than the Netherlands for a cautionary tale in a similar vein. Rubio Rubin enjoyed a sunny debut season with Utrecht last season, starting 21 games and coming off the bench seven times to log 1,925 minutes. But after the season, manager Rob Alflen was replaced by former Bayern Munich II coach Erik ten Hag, who’s dolled out just 151 minutes of first team soccer to Rubin through the first month-plus of the season.
All that to say players are entirely beholden to the opinions of their manager, which can flip like a switch when that changes. Just ask Emerson Hyndman at Fulham how well he’s jived with Kit Symons since he replaced Felix Magath last year. Hyndman’s since rejected multiple extension offers and is on the outs at the club.
Advocaat’s replacement could well be a Yedlin fan, which would be a manna windfall for a player who’s struggled to find consistency in England. And even if it is, and Yedlin’s loan goes well despite the fact that Sunderland is a Derp Factory, he still returns to a Spurs team with an equally uncertain managerial future that’s already sold and then signed a right back since Yedlin joined.
Here’s hoping Yedlin sees a path forward in England, the overstuffed duck of global soccer.