Play a word association game with Newcastle fans and ‘Moussa Sissoko’ might well lead to ‘lazy’, ‘greedy’ and ‘really couldn’t give a flying sh*t’. Play the same game with France supporters and you will hear ‘useful’, ‘hardworking’, ‘team player’ and quite possibly ‘substitute’. He is Mr Versatile. Mr Reliable. Jacques of all trades. In short, he is France’s James Milner.
But while Milner is the 30-year-old tin opener that nobody needs in 2016, Sissoko is the 26-year-old Swiss Army knife about to start a European Championship semi-final ahead of N’Golo Kante, Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial. This is the same Moussa Sissoko who has just been relegated with Newcastle after a season in which he scored once and tackled less than Ayoze Perez. “He’s magic, y’know,” supporters used to proudly sing. “You’ll never get past Sissoko.” That chant hasn’t been heard much of late.
Sissoko has a not-insignificant 42 caps – only six players in France’s Euro 2016 squad have more – and yet he has started just six competitive games in almost seven years since he made his full debut as a 20-year-old in a French side featuring Thierry Henry. He has a reputation for being the ‘chouchou’ of Didier Deschamps, who picks Sissoko for his French squads almost without thinking. Why would you set out on any journey without a Swiss Army knife?
He began this tournament where he begins most French matches – on the bench. A typical Sissoko cap, it involved him coming on as a defensive forward to replace Dimitri Payet with seconds left on the clock; he touched the ball six times. Not needed against Albania, he then played 90 excellent minutes in a much-changed central midfield against Switzerland before once again running the clock down against Ireland.
And then came the Iceland quarter-final, with Deschamps finally finding the formula to extract the very best from his two superstars – pushing Antoine Griezmann close to (and beyond) a very grateful Olivier Giroud and pairing Paul Pogba with Blaise Matuidi in the absence of N’Golo Kante. Key to that switch is Sissoko, playing nominally wide right but essentially in the team to enable Pogba.
“When I’m on the field alongside Paul (Pogba) and Blaise (Matuidi), there is more defensive security,” says Sissoko. “Paul is released and can go forward because I compensate his movements. That may be what makes it more comfortable.”
The proof is in the statistics. Despite playing as one of the wide attackers in a 4-2-3-1, nobody made more combined tackles/interceptions than Sissoko; ‘defensive midfielder’ Pogba tackled less and shot more. With Kante available again after suspension, Deschamps has a choice between the Premier League champion and a switch back to 4-3-3 or the relegated Sissoko and a 4-2-3-1 that destroyed an admittedly poor Iceland. Most indications point to the latter, with Sissoko the facilitator who allows Pogba to play with licence to push from deep and Griezmann to play in the position where he thrives for his club.
But that status as Mr Versatile does Sissoko a disservice. Watching Sissoko against Switzerland and Iceland was to remember Newcastle’s Sissoko of 2013, when his bursts from midfield made Magpies think that they had somehow bought Yaya Toure for £1.8m.
“On l’appelle le robot car dès qu’il pousse le ballon et accélère, il déménage tout,” says Matuidi. You don’t need more than GCSE French to know that he is in awe of Sissoko with the ball at his feet. Again, the statistics back up the evidence of our eyes: Sissoko has dribbled past ten opposition players in little more than 180 minutes.
That dribbling statistic is not one that screams James Milner, but this quote certainly does: “I try to bring what I can to the group. Regardless of my playing time, I have to give myself fully, wet the shirt. But even when I’m on the bench, I want the team to win.”
It’s not a version of Sissoko that many Newcastle United fans would recognise, but that fictional word association game may soon expand to include the unlikely phrase ‘Euro 2016 winner’. The only compensation for the Toon Army might be the rising profit on that £1.8m.