With numerous loan spells and a host of substitute appearances, the young Englishman stuttered into football rather than exploded—unlike many of his contemporaries. However, now it seems he is beginning to hit full speed in a team that needs a new hero.
With the summer’s most protracted transfer saga set to reach its conclusion imminently, Spurs will be losing the one man they could turn to last season when things were looking bleak, and it seems as though Townsend could be offering some light at the end of the tunnel.
In truth, Tottenham can be more than pleased with the opening they’ve made to the campaign.
With Roberto Soldado and Paulinho making impressive starts to their Spurs careers, we could be forgiven for letting one man, who has been with the club for five years now, escape our thoughts.
After spells with lower Championship sides, on loan, Townsend went largely unnoticed—until he enjoyed a spell with QPR at the back end of last season.
He was never going to be able to save the West London side that was destined for relegation, but he did his own reputation no harm with a string of exciting performances.
Now, though, after impressing in Europe against Dinamo Tbilisi and again in the league outing against Swansea at the weekend—winning the penalty that brought about the three points—Townsend is fast becoming integral to Andre Villas Boas’ plans.
There are several reasons for this, the main one being his versatility. Spurs have started the season experimenting with a 4-2-3-1 formation, utilising Townsend on the right-hand side of the attacking midfield trio that sits behind Soldado, the lone striker.
This enables him to cut inside from a wide stance and go at defenders, making it hard for them to commit to challenges allowing, him to pepper 'keepers with shots at goal.
He also enjoys having the ball at his feet and has an innate ability to almost slalom run as he jinks in and out of full-backs, combined with a blistering pace; this makes him a daunting prospect to defend against. His success rate at runs is highlighted in this table from Squawka.
The diminutive wide-man can, however, also operate in a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation on the right wing, or even in a basic 4-3-3 set-up, which affords him a bit more room to operate freely.
This means when facing tougher opponents in the coming weeks—Sunday’s North London derby springs to mind—Townsend can sit on a high line and let the midfield battlers like Sandro, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue do the graft work before picking up the ball and linking midfield and attack.
His ability on the ball as well as his running off it gives Villas Boas an outlet that he may have feared would have been lost in the absence of Gareth Bale.
But Townsend has already shown that he can operate in a constrained, planned formation with a specific duty to perform or he can be trusted with a freer role on the park that allows him to meander across a back four, creating runs to open space for midfielders to run from deep and join the attack.
Although we are in the early stages of the season and there is still a lot of football to be played, he has an impressive rating on WhoScored, which should please any Tottenham fans that might be fretting over the apparent loss of their talisman.
The interesting thing to note is that if Erik Lamela does come in from Roma, Townsend could still see himself playing a bit-part role this season.
He might not be a guaranteed starter for every game, but AVB will know he has a player who can create chances, dismantle defenders and score goals, too, which is an important combination for any wide-man.
It’s that wide role he seems to prefer, too. But whereas Aaron Lennon prefers to hug the line and fizz crosses in, Townsend is not afraid to get into the thick of the action and drive into the box.
The direct approach is somewhat reminiscent of Bale’s bursts into the box, and Townsend could see himself playing a more prominent role if he continues in the same rich vein of form.
His role at the club is at least taking on greater responsibility, but with a strong squad this season, he will undoubtedly have to keep on top of game to maintain the role he is carving out for himself, which has been duly noted with his recent inclusion in the latest England squad.