Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City on Saturday evening was a mess. Profligacy and defensive incompetence aside, there were no dominant themes at the Etihad. Pep Guardiola’s team attacked manically, setting out with five pure attacking players and leaving Yaya Toure as the defence’s lone protector. And it worked – but only up to a point. City looked lethal and Spurs were jabbed, hooked, and uppercutted to within an inch of their senses and yet, because Guardiola kept swinging at what looked to be an insurmountable two-nil lead, Mauricio Pochettino was able to head back to London with a share of the points.
The game was at its most chaotic in the middle of the second-half. At 2-1, Toby Alderweireld felt a tightness in his hamstring and had to be replaced, forcing Pochettino into his third defensive rethink in just over an hour. Kevin Wimmer had already been removed, hooked at half-time after a calamitous showing which would surely have ended with a red card. Eric Dier, who had begun the game as one of three centre-halves, was recalled from his sojourn in midfield to rejoin the backline, and Victor Wanyama – by virtue of being the strongest, biggest, and most robust player Spurs had left on the pitch – was asked to take his place alongside him.
Wanyama was excellent by the way, genuinely outstanding under the circumstances, but that panicked rejig conveys the chaos into which Harry Winks was thrown.
Winks is a fascinating prospect. In Tottenham Fan World, theories continue to percolate as to what his future could be. His passing range is varied enough to warrant serious first-team consideration and he offers Pochettino a possessional mobility which has proven useful more than once this season. His signature moment came before Christmas, when scoring his first senior goal prompted a wild dash to Pochettino’s “proud Dad” embrace, but that has obscured the overall impact he was able to have on that game. Winks is a nice story and childhood Spurs fan from Hemel Hempstead, but his value is more than just anecdotal and that was evidenced in the thick air of the Etihad Stadium.
Up close and personal, Premier League football can be furious. The dulling prism of television creates the perception of order, but when a game is tense and when one team holds the momentum, it’s like watching rising waves crash over a coastal hamlet. There’s no respite, there’s nowhere to hide; minds gets frazzled and the craziness multiplies by the second. Under those conditions, even seasoned veterans can melt under the lights.
Remarkably, Winks seems impervious to those pressures. Superficially, his performance against City was little more than decent: he played for 25 minutes, had only five fewer touches than Harry Kane enjoyed over 90, never put the ball in harm’s way, and made a couple of useful defensive interventions. But while it may seem tenuous to translate that into significant influence, it would be entirely fair to do so. Winks helped to create a stability which Spurs hadn’t enjoyed at any point in that game and though the waters continued to crash down on them, their stance grew noticeably wider after he was introduced.
It brought to mind a famous Guardiola quote, relating to tiki-taka football and the erroneous assumptions which surround it:
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it…it’s so much rubbish and has no purpose.”
Ironically, it was a lack of just that which arguably cost Manchester City the win – and Winks’ ability to do precisely that which allowed Spurs to survive. There is clearly a merit, in certain situations, to basic survival in football matches. Winks, partly through instinct, partly through direction, was the player his side needed him to be: a recycler, a safe haven, occasionally a move-starter. He didn’t necessarily move the ball with definitive purpose each time he received it, but he did so in a way which created respite from City’s attacking onslaught. Tottenham had had one centre-half substituted, another injured, and were at 2-1 deficit against a team who are as dangerous with the offensive initiative as they are on the counter-attack. That was a precarious tactical situation to be in and ordinarily it would be no place for a player with barely 300 minutes of league experience.
These are subtle tones in games and ones which are generally only recognisable in hindsight. Nevertheless, that Winks was able to exert any influence at all spoke to his situational intelligence and levels of conviction; in circumstances which ordinarily create inhibition, he was startlingly expressive.
Predicting the trajectory of a young player is a tedious business. Before the mid-twenties point, there are far too many variables within a career for anyone to be truly certain over its future. Pass percentages, goals, and chance-creation statistics are fine, but the only semi-reliable measure of potential exists in a player’s human characteristics. On the basis that most will endure triumph and adversity – or at least shallower peaks and troughs – the emotional tools he possesses are the truer indicators of what he’s likely to achieve. Does that mean that because Harry Winks survived 25 minutes at one of the biggest grounds in the country he will now enjoy a decade of undiluted success? Naturally no, but it was nevertheless a heartening illustration of his circumstantial dexterity.
Can a player follow his manager’s instructions? Can he use his ability fully in spite of whatever pressures exists and can he subsequently alter the mood of a game? If the answer to those questions is “yes”, a bright future will usually follow. Over time, we’ve learnt that players are only really capable of becoming what their managers allow them to be. They are the clay on the wheel and the thread on the loom. It’s those mental attributes, therefore, which determine how pliable players are and how well they are likely to react to all that needing and stretching.
And they are mental attributes which, fortunately for Tottenham and Pochettino, seem particularly fortified in Harry Winks.