If Tottenham fans had been told a central-midfield partnership of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko would become one of the most important parts of the team at the beginning of the season, they would have laughed you out of north London.
And yet, here we are. Spurs have just beaten Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League 3-0 thanks to goals from Son Heung-min, Jan Vertonghen and Fernando Llorente to take a huge advantage to Germany in early March.
And the foundation for the performance was laid, yet again, by Harry Winks.
With Mousa Dembele recently departing for China, Victor Wanyama seemingly (and rather heartbreakingly) incapable of shaking off niggling injuries and Eric Dier also enduring knocks of his own, Winks has been afforded a long run in the side, playing an arguably unreasonable amount of games since the start of December.
Frankly, he must be knackered, so much so that he must think twice about making that next angle to receive a pass, or pirouetting 360 degrees to create space for himself or a teammate to drive into.
But he doesn’t. He’s been given an enormous amount of responsibility by Mauricio Pochettino and has justified it with some incredible performances, and it’s now scary to think what a slow, plodding, sludgy team Tottenham might be without the England international.
Winks’ ability to run games from midfield is what makes him such an underrated talent in the Premier League, but his biggest performances have arguably come in the Champions League.
He was brilliant in the 3-1 win over Real Madrid last year and again on Wednesday when Tottenham struck twice late on to take a firm grip on their last 16 tie with Dortmund.
He broke up play when necessary with four tackles and two interceptions, and made a total of 72 passes, the fourth most during game behind his side’s three centre backs, with an accuracy of 93%.
Sure, tackling and passing is what any central midfielder should be good at anyway, but Winks is so much more than just neat and tidy. His composure in turning out when pressed allows the resurgent Sissoko the space to drive into and get Spurs on the front foot when in transition.
Coincidentally, two of the three goals Tottenham scored against Dortmund came after they recycled and got forward quickly, exploiting BVB’s difficulty in tracking runners when out of possession whenever the away side lost the ball, and ultimately that’s where the game was won.
Winks’ emergence as a crucial first teamer has come at the ideal time for Spurs following Dembele’s departure, with many unsure if there was another player in Tottenham’s squad able to give others time and space with their own hunger for and skill on the ball.
But the 23-year-old has shown he is Dembele‘s natural successor and, perhaps most importantly, he has the total backing of Pochettino, who knows he has a player who will almost always make the right decision in possession.
So while it may have been sad for Spurs fans to see the Belgian GOAT depart in January, they have a player in Winks who is younger, fitter, and passionate about the club, and that’s reason enough to be optimistic.