Fulham 1 Tottenham 2, 21st January 2019.
Harry Winks’ late winner against Fulham made him the easy pick as Tottenham’s best player at Craven Cottage. Truthfully though, he was comfortably Mauricio Pochettino’s most productive performer regardless, and his stooping header only added an exclamation mark to a fine overall contribution.
Because of recent events and for the foreseeable future, Winks’ effect will most often be compared to that of Mousa Dembele. It’s a false equivalence, because Dembele was a footballing oddity to whom Winks bears no physical or technical resemblance. But there are some parallels between him and another former Tottenham midfielder: Michael Carrick.
Carrick split opinion at Manchester United, but he was rightly cherished at Spurs for his metronomic distribution, his unerring first-touch and his willingness to receive the ball under any circumstances. Winks is very similar and could theoretically grow into the same space. But he’s also a more aggressive player than Carrick was. Against Fulham, with Pochettino’s experimental attack floundering, that was a great virtue. Erik Lamela and Dele Alli showed little chemistry with Fernando Llorente and many of the moves involving the three broke down because of errant passes or misunderstandings. Nevertheless, the supply of possession was generally good and Winks also did a fine job of connecting the defence and midfield.
Superficially, his 116 touches of the ball attests to that. His passing accuracy of 89.2% also suggests a fine effort. However, across London, Chelsea’s Jorginho is busy proving that healthy percentages are no real measure of effect. The Italian may receive the ball a lot and rarely puts it in harm’s way, but his side remain one-paced because, in part, the ambition within his passing has greatly receded since the beginning of the season. He’s playing scared and, consequently, has actually become an obstruction to Maurizio Sarri’s style of play.
Conversely, what was most impressive about Winks at Craven Cottage was his intent. His pass selection is generally good, there’s very little inhibition in his game, and that proved the case on Sunday. In the main, Tottenham lacked fluidity. They weren’t precise and much of their play lacked speed. With Winks on the ball, however, they possessed drive. He may not have split a line with every pass he made, sometimes he opted for balls out to one of his full-backs or simple lay-offs, but there was traceable method to his game.
Like Carrick, he’s really one of those players who it’s important to watch live. For the perspective it gives on his ability, of course, but also because it provides a vantage on how his mind seems to work. Winks doesn’t relax during a game. While Carrick operated with that unflappable calm, Winks’ changes of expression and glances around the pitch betray how hard he works to process the surrounding mechanics. In the abstract, it’s even possible to imagine his internal monologue and observe his thought processes – to see him calculate what his actions will enable, not just how best to avoid turnovers and risk.
It’s a very important quality. Particularly now, when there’s such blind faith in blunt statistics and when players are pilloried for even the most minor mistakes.
Perhaps, then, beyond the obvious pre-requisites, mentality is the fundamental virtue of any deep midfielder. As a case in point, Winks’ great success at Craven Cottage was to remain impervious to his team’s mood. Often, Tottenham appeared restrained by self-pity and the ready-made excuses contained within their injury list. But while they sulked, he played with great optimism. No matter the situation in the game, the score, or the tone of the crowd, he was consistent, playing with the same intensity, shuttling about the pitch and putting the ball to work.
Strangely, he isn’t a confidence player either. In the first-half on Sunday, he probably hit the ugliest pass of the game, shovelling the ball uselessly off the pitch with Lamela well-placed. After the break, he was culpable for an outright blooper, scuffing the ball comically and surrendering possession in the Fulham half. But it had no dampening effect on him; his game didn’t become reticent, nor did he respond to the jeers of the crowd. What an asset. If a player is responsible for a team’s rhythm, any wavering in his confidence is critical. For Spurs to have a player who pulses without interruption is invaluable.
The supporters will know that, because it was one of the problem which used to afflict Tom Huddlestone. He wasn’t as skilled or as neat as Winks, but he was also more emotionally fragile. A few misplaced passes in succession and, typically, he would become docile, ineffective and – at worst – a liability.
Huddlestone was also defensively suspect and that remains an area of weakness for Winks too. In the first-half, his occasionally errant positioning was complicit in Fulham’s ability to break into space. Still, it’s a weakness which has probably been exaggerated. On 58 minutes, he made an excellent interception in front of his own box, intervening as Andre Schurrle threatened to thread Aleksandar Mitrovic through the defensive line. On 75 minutes, he chased Ryan Sessegnon down across forty yards and timed a tackle well on the edge of his own box. Those examples alone are not proof of defensive excellence, but as they accumulate they do refute the accusation that Winks is a one-way player; he has experience to gain and improvements to make without the ball – that’s certainly true – but he’s smarter and more tenacious than he’s generally given credit for.
But if there was a passage of play which neatly surmised Winks’ effect on Sunday, it occurred – neatly – during the game’s final minute. With thirty seconds of injury-time remaining, he intercepted a channel ball, cushioning a header to Christian Eriksen. He then took two Fulham players out of the game, bisecting them with a pass to Eric Dier, before making a breaking, off-the-ball run up the field.
Of course, Tottenham worked the ball down the left side and the move ended with Winks heading in at the far post. Arriving late into the penalty box and scoring back-post headers is not really part of his armoury, he may never do it again, but that passage was so descriptive of both his understanding of the situation and his conviction in his own ability. As a sequence, it was the ideal marriage of technical confidence with the determination to be a difference-maker.
Conveniently, it also furthered that perception of his invulnerability to his team’s general form. Tottenham had lost Dele Alli to injury by that point and, if anything, Fulham were actually having the better of those final exchanges. So how many players would have made that run? It’s interesting, because it’s tempting to believe that most would have settled for recovering the ball and pushing it forward, thereby padding their own statistics, adding another “nice” moment to their showreel and passing the responsibility for what happened next to their teammates.
It might be hyperbole, last-minute winners tend to leave a flattering warmth, but it might just be the most impressive sequence in his career to-date. And tellingly, it occurred during his team’s worst performance in months.