By Jacob Steinberg/The Guardian
Moussa Sissoko is an easy scapegoat. He has been a target for scorn since his unforgettably woeful performance in Tottenham’s defeat by Bayer Leverkusen at Wembley last November, on a night when it looked as though he needed someone to explain the entire concept of football to him. It was the comically miscued shot that slithered embarrassingly wide that best explained why eyebrows were raised when Spurs paid Newcastle United for a midfielder whose energetic running often masks technical shortcomings.
However, it was not Sissoko’s fault that Mauricio Pochettino’s side lost against Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday.
If fingers must be pointed, direct them at two of Pochettino’s favourites, Hugo Lloris and Victor Wanyama, whose errors played a big part in Marcos Alonso’s winner. The margins were fine.
Against champions belatedly locating their steel and snarl Spurs huffed and puffed when they needed a change of pace. When Pochettino turned to his bench as Chelsea dug in, the Argentinian’s options were limited after he introduced Son Heung-min and, given that Sissoko has been linked with a move away all summer, it seemed rather desperate when he replaced Ben Davies in the 80th minute, though not quite as futile as when Vincent Janssen was given three minutes of stoppage time to find an equaliser after Alonso had restored Chelsea’s lead.
The issue for Tottenham is not what the pair did while they were on the pitch but that they were on it at all – Pochettino does not trust them – and it is one that the club must address before the transfer window shuts.
Spurs have maintained their dignity away from the feeding frenzy this summer. Two games into the new season they have made one signing, agreeing a £42mn deal with Ajax for their Colombian centre-back Davinson Sánchez. Constructing the new White Hart Lane ground compels them to adopt a measured approach, while Daniel Levy relishes a busy end to the month.
Pochettino wants three more players to help challenge for the title while dealing with the rigours of the Champions League, and a deal for Ross Barkley should be easier to push through now that Everton have Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Yet while Tottenham must beware a knee-jerk reaction, they need to keep at bay the restlessness that surfaced in Danny Rose’s recent comments about ambition. Rose was unavailable against Chelsea, still to return from a long-term knee injury, but Pochettino was not missing many players. Erik Lamela was also absent but otherwise Spurs were almost at full strength and still found themselves using sub-standard players on a weekend when Anthony Martial scored a wonderful goal after coming off the bench in Manchester United’s 4-0 demolition of Swansea City.
It is rare for teams to win major trophies without decent back-up. Though Chelsea won the league with a small collective last season, Antonio Conte admits their load was lightened by a lack of injuries and no European football. The Italian’s frustration at Chelsea’s struggle to bolster their squad this summer is no secret.
Pochettino’s coaching has a positive impact on his players, with youngsters often responding well to his demands. Though Tottenham have plenty of promising academy products, they need more proven quality if this team are to maximise their obviously vast potential.
Only with the application of Levy-nomics could they have squeezed £50mn out of Manchester City for Kyle Walker but it remains to be seen whether Spurs will be better off with the money they received for the right-back. When they beat Chelsea at White Hart Lane last season the speed of Walker and Rose overwhelmed Alonso and Victor Moses in the wing-back positions. On Sunday, however, Chelsea were comfortable against the less dynamic Davies and Kieran Trippier, exposing Tottenham’s reliance on wing?backs to provide them with width.
By packing the midfield Conte forced Spurs into wide areas and there were too many crosses from wide positions, most of which were comfortably headed away. Whether signing Barkley will solve that problem is debatable. What Tottenham really need is a top winger, a player to unsettle deep defences with pace and trickery, a dash of unpredictability, someone to engage full-backs with winding dribbles and add more spice to an attack that can become a little one-note at times. They wanted Wilfried Zaha before he re-committed himself to Crystal Palace. They have tried with Clinton N’Jie and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou. They need to try harder.
Through 25 years of the Premier League scintillating wing play has been a prominent feature for most champions – from all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United sides to Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox at Blackburn Rovers, through to Arsène Wenger’s great Arsenal teams, Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard at Chelsea and the twinkling Riyad Mahrez at Leicester City.
Manchester City have Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, United have Martial and Liverpool have bought Mo Salah even though they already had Sadio Mane. For all the strides Spurs have made, Sissoko runs in straight lines.
They might find the path to success is quicker if they get hold of someone willing to make unexpected twists and turns.
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