This combination shouldn’t work. We know it does, because Tottenham have depended on it all the way through the winter, but the spread of attributes just isn’t right: between Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, there’s no static and reassuring ball-winner, neither are renowned for their positional discipline and, collectively, they don’t possess the metronomic authority assumed to be a prerequisite in the Champions League.
Their success in the 1-0 win over Manchester City partly depended on Pep Guardiola, who can add another botch to his Champions League record. City remain well within the tie, in fact they should still be considered favourites to advance, but Guardiola was very obviously – and incorrectly – determined to make this a physical contest. That was the real error, not the decision to leave out Kevin De Bruyne or Leroy Sane. Had City not brought such a belligerent attitude to north London – exhibited by their general demeanour and, most notably, by Fernandinho’s ludicrous double elbow on Harry Kane – then the game wouldn’t have been nearly as fractious.
But they did and it was, and that suited Spurs’ imperfect midfield. They would have wanted a back-and-forth game full of bite, because all of their strengths are most pertinent within transition. Winks’ reputation has been defined by his technique in receiving possession and his capacity to break lines with his progressive passing. Sissoko, clearly, isn’t equipped with that kind of finesse, but he too thrives in basketball-like conditions, because the more relevant his capacity to cover ground and carry possession becomes, the more effective he ultimately is. He wants – needs – a broken field to show his best.
Conversely, had this been a more typical City performance, in which they camped in their opponent’s half for long periods, knifing those subtle passes into the Tottenham penalty box, then Sissoko and Winks would not only have been more passive, but the weakness they share – vulnerability to sustained defensive examination – would have been targeted more effectively.
As it was, the emphasis was placed on what they do well. Tottenham like a war, they’ll drop the gloves and fight anybody, and those two were the real beneficiaries of another Guardiola over-think.
Winks was a great success. His temperament has always been his meal-ticket, particularly in this type of match. That he is not afraid to receive the ball under pressure and deep in his own half is a tremendous strength and, as Matt Stead pointed out in his 16 Conclusions, a common feature of his performances against some very strong opponents in the past.
He’s a brave footballer and that also manifests in his willingness to advance the play. Winks isn’t reckless in possession, but neither does he aimlessly recycle it: a lay-off to a full-back or centre-half is generally a last resort and, instead, his first instinct is to go forward. The best example of that last night may have had no relevance to the final score, but it provided a vivid a portrayal of what Winks’ core ability actually is: fourteen minutes in, Kyle Walker cut a cross back towards (but beyond) Sergio Aguero, only for Winks to intercept, cut three City players out of the game with an immediate vertical pass, and create a counter-attacking chance for Dele Alli.
That’s who he is; that’s the kind of optimism which allows him to prosper in this kind of game. Tottenham did not enjoy the bulk of possession, nor did they command any territorial advantage, but Winks offered the threat of turning those long periods of defence into something dangerous at the other end and, with Kane presumably now out of the second leg and Spurs reliant on counter-attacking pace from here on in, that was and will continue to be invaluable.
And Sissoko. What an oddity he is. And that’s meant with love. He’s not a cultured player, he could probably mis-control a medicine ball, but during this spell in midfield he has, at times, exerted an unreasonably broad influence. His literal athletic capacity means that he’s able to cover whole continents of space during games, and that was in evidence again.
He didn’t make many tackles, he didn’t finish the game with a bundle of interceptions, but he did get in the way, yapping at the heels of City’s artisans and generally being a big, big pain. It’s strange to watch, but it works. He’s like that big rock that chases Indiana Jones: his opponents can hear him rumbling towards them and, more often than not last night, that was enough to create a helpful sense of foreboding.
Pochettino has always taken grief over that transfer, because it was completed on his urging. For a long time, that criticism was valid, too, because the lack of a proper, permanent position magnified Sissoko’s flaws, turning him into an obvious villain. Now, he’s being asked to perform a role which is within his skillset: he can chase the play, he can win the ball and, when required, his straight-line running in possession offers Spurs an invaluable gear-change. Look back over Tottenham’s season and you’d be surprised: at the root of a couple of their most important goals has been one of Sissoko’s skittling surges.
Together, he and Winks don’t really belong. As if to make that point, they didn’t really give their side a platform against City. They weren’t a proper axis, they didn’t really hunt in a pair and, actually, as a Venn Diagram, they existed as two separate circles. But what they did provide was a particular energy which, enabled by another Guardiola psychosis in the Champions League, instructed a win which Tottenham thoroughly deserved.