Robert Vilahamn: ‘The case study will be Grace Clinton’ as Spurs look to become development option for young talent

Tottenham Hotspur prepare for a mouthwatering North London Derby clash with Arsenal on Sunday, and the Lilywhites will undoubtedly have a spring in their step after stunning the Gunners in December in N17.

But as they look to play in front of a near capacity crowd at Emirates Stadium this weekend, Robert Vilahamn told reporters in his pre-match press conference that ‘I don’t think anybody here expects us to win the game [against Arsenal] but we know that we can win if we have a great day, and for me that’s where we are right now.’

‘We had success in the Conti Cup against Arsenal, then in the league beating them, and now we know how to beat them if everything goes well. You cannot think you’re going to beat them every time with that strategy – you need to find ways to beat them but it’s going to take time. Now we are in between, we try to defend well against the top teams but also we try to be attacking.’

Vilahamn accepted that his Lilywhites side haven’t been able to enjoy the most optimal preparation for this match, with the international break arriving immediately after their most recent defeat to Aston Villa.

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‘The tough thing is I don’t think we had the best game against Aston Villa, and then the players are leaving directly after the game so you cannot speak to the whole group about what was good, what was bad, how we can take steps. You just need to accept that you have to work with the players you have here, and you nail that and then you start working on the game against Arsenal – but you know you’re only working with half of the group so you need to recap with the rest of them.’

Despite that hurdle, he remained relatively optimistic and explained that ‘today they were back, we recapped about the Aston Villa game quickly and then we recapped how we trained [during] the past ten days. Tomorrow, everyone will be sharp enough to know what we’re going to do against Arsenal so I’m getting quite used to this and we just need to be very sharp with the tactical analysis and how we perform on Sunday.’

‘On the other hand, it’s very good to train with a small group because you can work with them on an individual level and also a tactical level. We had a friendly game against the college team last Saturday so we got good minutes and good relations.’

Vilahamn expressed his excitement at playing in front of a sell-out crowd in N5 on Sunday, adding that ‘to see this now is just amazing. This is just the first step – we want to have full stadiums at our home games and I hope all the other leagues become very professional. This is for the future but we’re already here and it makes me very happy because that’s why I’m in this business.’

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Vilahamn also spoke in depth on a plethora of individual players within his squad, reserving the utmost praise for Grace Clinton. The Manchester United loanee netted on her senior Lionesses debut against Austria, and Vilahamn insisted that ‘her journey this [past] six or seven months is amazing, I think we saw glimpses of it in the first weeks when she was here and I think every month we have seen more and more stuff that makes it very clear that she is going to be a very good player.’

‘Now you can tell that she’s already starting to play with the Lionesses and actually scores goals, wins second balls, she can create free-kicks, she can do stuff so I’m very pleased with that and of course we are very happy to have her here right now.’

The significance of Clinton’s monumental rise to the top isn’t lost on Vilahamn, who told reporters that ‘it’s important for me and for this club to show the world and England that we can take these young players, develop them and make sure that they become Lionesses because if we’re going to compete with the best teams in this league, we need to have an identity of how we do that.’

‘The case study will be Grace Clinton for how players can come here, get game time, get educated and feel the freedom to play and reach the national team with Tottenham and not the big clubs. When I look back, there are a lot of players in the top three clubs sitting on the bench because that was the professional environment before – but now you can go to top six, top seven clubs and actually play in the national team.’

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‘I think that’s the big step for us right now, even if we are sixth-placed in the league, we show England that we want to compete and now we actually have a possibility to bring those players here because they want to come now and that’s good,’ he summarised.

Vilahamn also piled on the praise for Matilda Vinberg, who also netted for her national team during the recent international break. ‘I think it was very good for her self-confidence to go back to Sweden, get that ninety minutes, score a goal and do a beautiful assist as well. She kind of played at wing-back, a new role for her in Sweden but she had a great game,’ he told reporters on Friday.

‘The main thing is she competes against Celin [Bizet] and Grace [Clinton] and you’ve seen how good they have been this time – so she knows it’s about adapting to this league and this team but I think every week she’s knocking on the door that she wants to start games so it’s how she came back from this national team. She’s never been closer than this to actually starting a game. We’re looking into different roles and I’m sure she’s going to find more playing time in the next upcoming games.’

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He also offered an insight into his latest thoughts on what still needs to click with Martha Thomas and Beth England. Thomas had found fine goalscoring form at the start of the season, but her output has diminished somewhat since England’s return – and Vilahamn attributes that downfall to ‘the connection between them and the rest of the players. If you’re going to look at how they play, how they move and so on, you need to have other players working as well. If you’re going to use Beth England in the best way, she needs to get the ball in the box and score those goals, right?’

‘If you’re going to use Martha [Thomas] in the best way, she also needs those combinations and so on – and then they need to connect with Grace [Clinton] and Celin [Bizet] who played in the last game, for example.’

‘Sometimes, that’s easy and sometimes it’s harder – and then also you have the [problem of] self-confidence when you are a striker who doesn’t score in many games. We need to find ways to use them in the right way, and of course we’ll look into that. On the other hand, they work really hard for the team and they want to improve – they just need that goal and that chance.’

Tottenham Hotspur travel to Emirates Stadium on Sunday 3 March to face Arsenal, with kickoff scheduled for 12:30 GMT.