Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko and a sharp escalation in self-belief

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 28, 2018

Confidence is such an interesting commodity in football. It can’t be measured in any meaningful way, instead emboldening a player step-by-step until he is the very best version of himself. For Moussa Sissoko, that process seemed to begin at West Ham, when he was pushed into space wide on the London Stadium’s touchline, stepped inside his marker, and cut in the cross from which Erik Lamela scored the only goal of the game.

A useful, tangible contribution in a game which really mattered and, in exchange, a few pennies in the bank.

Then, Wolves. Sissoko is not a natural central midfield and that’s often exposed when he’s forced to play as part of ‘two’. His performance at Molineux was imperfect and his positioning was regularly askew, but the contributions he did make were crucial to Tottenham’s 3-2 win. He covered an awful lot of ground that night, with and without the ball, and those who were there sung his name as he left the field.

A few pennies more.

Most recently, Chelsea, when he was arguably the best player on the pitch and certainly the most involved overall. In the weeks before, he had rediscovered his faith in himself, pushing his passes around with more certainty, regularly knocking the ball past opponents and driving Spurs up the field. At Wembley his touch was better and his shoulders broader. He was defensively excellent and, with a proper midfield built around him, the ratios in his game titled dramatically in his favour. That night he played with instict. Previously in a Tottenham shirt, his moments on the ball had been preceded by a dreaded pause, when both he and the crowd wondered what was about to happen. A clumsy touch, a botched pass… a swing and a miss? It’s one thing for a crowd to rumble with such uncertainty, but it’s quite another for the same doubt to rattle around inside a player’s mind.

Inter Milan provided the finest moment to date. Not the finest performance, because the Italians generally defended well and the congested nature of the game didn’t really suit Sissoko. But when it mattered, when some thrust forward was vital and those visiting lines had to be broken, he was the man to do it, bursting into the box, squaring for Dele Alli, and creating the displacement from which Christian Eriksen would ultimately capitalise. It was a gorgeous goal, full of rhythm, purpose and precision, and it had Sissoko right at its heart. Eriksen at its comprehensive end, Alli within its crafty, feathered middle, but him at its very beginning and responsible for its inception.

Three months ago that would have been a fanciful scenario. Two months ago it would have been unlikely enough. But over the past weeks – slowly, slowly – most Tottenham supporters have started to see him as the kind of player who can alter this sort of game in that type of situation. A strong run here, a better decision there. Nearly, nearly and now, suddenly – yes – there he is, somehow someone who Mauricio Pochettino dare not be without.

That’s the thing about confidence: it isn’t binary. It’s often presented in black and white, with a player seen either to have it or to not, but it generally conforms to this sort of pattern instead. A few glowing embers, then a spitting flame, and – before anyone has really noticed or understands how or why – the whole place is ablaze.

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