Moussa Sissoko helps to toughen a brittle Tottenham

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 4, 2018
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Tottenham’s week began with Gary Neville making less than flattering remarks about their past, but it did end with a vague testament to their current resilience. Two penalties conceded by Juan Foyth invited Wolverhampton Wanderers into a game which, after an hour, was already over. By full-time Mauricio Pochettino’s players had the faintest of grips on their victory. This seems to be the way of things, though. Spurs are a patchwork side at the moment, full of gaps and half-fit players, and they are having to be extremely efficient to survive. In a sense, Saturday’s win was the contrasting cousin of Monday’s defeat: whereas failure to put away chances at Wembley had cost them the draw which they deserved, the ruthless punishing of slack Wolves moments at Molineux gave them a win that they probably didn’t.

It’s tempting to draw no conclusions at all from this current run. With Dele Alli and Jan Vertonghen absent and Christian Eriksen far from fit, the team’s form is almost a redundant issue. That they continue to collect points is more important than how they do so.  It’s certainly true to an extent, but there are still themes in Spurs’ player which warrant evaluation – some good, some bad – and they can help instruct Pochettino’s plans from the rest of the season. Erik Lamela was excellent again in the Midlands, that was certainly welcome, and Juan Foyth – obvious issue(s) aside – had an encouraging debut. After a string of errors, it would also have heartened Pochettino to see Hugo Lloris make so many good saves, too. And Moussa Sissoko was also influential, offering an overdue vision of what his purpose actually is within this squad.

Sissoko has not been a success since joining. Nevertheless, his signing continues to be misinterpreted. In him, Pochettino saw a powerful, hard-running player who could carry the ball vertically and penetrate through opposition lines. At the time, he probably knew that the French midfielder’s technique was some way below the native average and that his final-ball in attacking areas couldn’t be relied upon. Unfortunately, those deficiencies remain as obvious now as they were then.

However, on Saturday night Sissoko produced the performance his manager had probably envisaged. He wasted attacking opportunities, most notably over-cooking a cross with several teammates well-positioned, but he also did plenty of good. One-on-one, he is a physical mismatch against most players. He’s quick, he has a long stride, and he’s powerful. Against Manchester City, his value was mainly seen in his energy without the ball an in pursuit of it. Five days on, he had value in possession too. Spurs were at a constant disadvantage in midfield, with Moussa Dembele’s early injury leaving them outnumbered, but Sissoko formed a passable combination with Harry Winks and offered a useful contrast to the more technical attributes of not only Winks, but also Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves on the other side of the ball.

The trouble with Sissoko is that there’s always a highlight which undermines him. At the end of a game it is the loose touches and clumsiness which linger, not the simple tasks he has performed well. At Wembley for instance, it was the ridiculous corner he conceded in the first-half and the air-shot he took in the second, not the useful disruption he caused and the vertical surges he provided before, between, and after. The key though, is in recognising the purpose he serves. Not what he can and cannot do, but what his role on the field actually is. There have been many times in the past when he has failed to satisfy that criteria, but that hasn’t been the case over the past five days. As ever, it’s easy to undermine that argument and to offer YouTube lowlights in rebuttal. Or to point out that, next to the slick skills and light feet of his peers, Sissoko’s heavy touches offer a jarring contrast. He wasn’t bought for his aesthetics, though, neither is he picked for his craft or grace.

At Molineux, it was easy to overlook how broad his assignment atually was. Without Dembele as a stable centre point, Tottenham’s midfield-two really had to perform the role of three players. Harry Winks is a fine passer, but hardly a ball-winner, and Sissoko doesn’t have many natural defensive attributes either. The result was an imperfect duo having . Winks was asked to be the more static of the pair, while Sissoko was expected to lend support in nearly every area of the pitch and to cover a vast amount of ground.

And the core of his work was good. Most importantly though, it allowed the side’s game-winners – Lamela, Kane, Moura – to have their effect. Sissoko regularly received the ball from either Kieran Trippier or Juan Foyth, dropping deep to pick up and shuttle possession up the field. His determination to move forward, rather than side to side, also instructed the pace with which Spurs attacked and helped to create the space their forwards often found. That was his purpose on Saturday: to be that enabler. In fact, Pochettino was fortunate to have him available, because had he not then Dembele’s injury would have necessitated a like-for-like change in midfield and precluded the introduction of Son.

Television doesn’t help his cause. The cameras always follow the ball and emphasise the many micro-duels which take place over the course of a game. As wonderful as modern coverage is, it can never show a true depiction of the game. It doesn’t display the entire pitch and it cannot fit all 22 players onto the screen. More specifically, it doesn’t show the many runs which are being made off-camera, the fractures in a team which allow a move to develop or break down, and which players are offering passing options or, conversely, are closing them down. Sitting in a stadium is a luxury now, one that many can no longer afford, but – unfortunate as that may be – analysis by television is flawed and always will be.

That isn’t to say that there are two separate Moussa Sissokos – one loathed by the fans at home, the other cherished by those who travel – because that’s not the case. However, there is a difference in appreciation, possibly instructed by the perception of his role within the context of a game. Fans in the stand can see the structural issues within their side and, not always but often, via the conversations and gestures taking place off-the-ball, they can get a better sense of what a player is on the field to do and, if he’s struggling to exert himself, why that is.

The transfer fee is also a problem, as it is with any player. When a club has spent £30m on a signing, no matter how it’s staggered, small batches of seven, or eight out of ten performances will never seem sufficient. To be fair, that’s not an unreasonable position. Neither could it be claimed that Sissoko has justified the price tag attached to him. However, there must come a point at which that old grievance is dropped, when it’s accepted for what it is, and when the player is treated without agenda and as just another piece of the squad jigsaw.

Sissoko has earned that privilege. When other players return his relevance will likely decline away again, but that Alli, Eriksen and the rest are reappearing with their side so well-positioned is testament to how he’s adapted during this trying period.

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