Premier League

Selfless Sissoko becoming unlikely Spurs hero

 • by Matt Gault
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The game had finished but the Spurs fans hadn’t. After Tottenham Hotspur battled to another hard-fought three points on Saturday evening, edging Crystal Palace by the odd goal, a throng of the travelling supporters packed into a corner of Selhurst Park wanted to express their appreciation.

“Ohhhh, Moussa Sissoko. Ohhhh, Moussa Sissoko,” was the unlikely tune bellowed passionately from the stands. Before heading to the dressing room, Sissoko made a point of going over to acknowledge them. It was a heartwarming moment from a Spurs perspective – and one that would have scarcely seemed imaginable a year ago.

Sissoko has often attracted strong assessments of his contributions from fans but they have rarely been so positive.

This is, after all, a man who was ready to leave Spurs after a disastrous first year at White Hart Lane following his then club record £30million move from Newcastle United, his travails making Spurs’ unprecedented outlay seem reckless.

The logic behind Pochettino’s pursuit of Sissoko was sound. The Argentine wanted to add a powerful runner in midfield, someone with the ability to stretch a game and offer another option out wide in his 4-2-3-1 system.

While Sissoko’s £30million fee will always seem excessive, the Frenchman’s star was on the rise at that point. One of the few bright spots during Newcastle’s doomed 2015/16 campaign, Sissoko proved a crucial figure for his country as Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus finished runners-up at Euro 2016.

Then, on transfer deadline day that August, the midfielder turned down a move to Everton at the last minute and joined Spurs.

A few months later, Everton probably felt as though they had dodged a bullet. After an inauspicious start to his first season in north London, Pochettino demanded more from the big-money signing after omitting him from his matchday squad for a trip to Chelsea.

“Football is about players being better,” the Spurs boss fumed, “and that they show on the training ground that they are better than another team-mate and that they deserve to be involved or not.”

Almost exactly two years on and Pochettino is singing an entirely different tune.

Sissoko was singled out for praise after Spurs’ win over Palace, with Pochettino lauding the player’s professionalism and work ethic.

“I am so happy for Moussa because he deserves the love he is getting from fans and his team-mates. He is a massive guy but he is so big-hearted and so nice,” he said.

“Quality is so important in football. But quality without effort, being professional and fighting for the team makes it difficult for a player to show that quality.”

So long a misfit, Sissoko has turned a corner at and, with Mousa Dembélé out injured for the foreseeable future, could become an unlikely hero at Spurs this season. His form has even seen him called up to the France set-up for the first time in over a year.

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Sissoko has certainly made significant progress this season. The 29-year-old has already started six Premier League games this season having managed 15 for the whole of the 2017/18 campaign.

There have been key moments that demonstrate his upturn in confidence too.

Érik Lamela’s winner at West Ham United in October was the product of Sissoko’s invention on the right flank, spinning back infield to escape Felipe Anderson before finding the Argentine’s head with a delightfully clipped cross.

Against Cardiff two weeks prior, Sissoko was the most productive player in the Spurs attack, creating four chances for his team-mates, while in the defeat to Manchester City, he displayed the defensive side of his game, with four interceptions, four aerial duels won and seven ball recoveries.

But Palace felt significant. Paired with the equally powerful Victor Wanyama, Sissoko shone in a central role. A tireless, selfless presence in the Spurs midfield, he could be found driving at the home side’s defence before galloping back into position to ensure he didn’t leave his team-mates short at the back.

Sissoko’s style has always been largely shaped by his physical attributes. Tall, strong and quick, although he prefers to play centrally, managers have often deployed him in wider positions for his ability to beat defenders and inject pace into the attack.

His ability to read patterns of play and address developing situations does not receive as much attention, but nevertheless proved an important element of his impressive display at Selhurst Park.

In the image below, Serge Aurier is being sucked into pressing Patrick van Aanholt, leaving a massive space in behind. Sissoko is the most alert Spurs player, however, motoring beyond Aurier to ensure he gets there first and shuts down the counter-attack.

Sissoko’s intelligence spotted the escalating situation and his speed allowed him to meet van Aanholt’s ball down the line ahead of Jeffrey Schlupp (who, it’s worth noting, had just been introduced as a substitute seven minutes earlier; a mark of Sissoko’s impressive engine.

Sissoko has often been a difficult player to figure out. The fact that, in the past, he has been linked with everyone from Real Madrid, Arsenal and Juventus to Crystal Palace and West Brom depicts a player that is sometimes unplayable, sometimes terrible.

Newcastle fans will argue that Sissoko’s constant pining for Champions League football was rich considering the amount of times in which he went missing for them but, when his tail is up, he has shown himself to be a capable, versatile team player.

Sissoko has constantly seemed on the verge of a departure from Spurs. While it’s true that, had a decent offer arrived in the club’s inbox, the Frenchman would no longer be there. However, with injuries and a congested schedule leading up to Christmas, Sissoko has served Pochettino well.

He’s unlikely to be held in Harry Kane-esque esteem anytime soon but Sissoko has made a concerted effort to repair his fractured relationship with the Spurs fanbase of late – and for that, he deserves credit.

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