Moussa Sissoko's Importance to Tottenham's Midfield Is No Joke

The problem with jokes are that even the good ones get tired if you hear them enough times.

When you're present for the birth of a truly fresh piece of humour, the idea of it ever wearing out is inconceivable, but hearing about that hilarious GCSE Biology lesson ten years on runs the risk of wearing a little thin.

One of the oldest jokes in the book, and probably one that gets boring the quickest, is pretending that naff footballers are supernaturally-talented legends.

There's a certain jeering irony to the cult of 'Messi Lingard', and pretending that Joelinton stands shoulder to shoulder with Robert Lewandowski gets a little bit sad when his league goal tally for the season stands at two. Clearly, it's amongst the more gentle witticisms that a footballer can be subjected to, but it seems to dismissively laugh off the idea that certain players should even try to compete with the best.

Sissoko was the butt of various jokes when he first arrived from Newcastle

When Moussa Sissoko checked into White Hart Lane after Spurs made him their record transfer in £30m, he looked in real danger of joining the ranks of these permanently comic footballers.

Sissoko was primarily a source of mirth because he was nothing Spurs fans had ever seen before - here was a player who often struggled to find the right pass on the break, was a complete passenger in the box, he occasionally looked like he was controlling a football for the very first time, and he was the club's most expensive player ever.

'What a bargain,' Spurs fans would sneer after every heavy touch, while any competent performances from the Frenchman would be greeted with genuine surprise.

Was Sissoko's goal against Huddersfield a crucial turning point?

While performances stabilised (and though not many Spurs fans said so at the time, were largely pretty good) during the 2017/18 season, where Sissoko looked sharp in Spurs' slick draw at the Bernabeu, he remained a magnet for stray banter.

Even his triumphs were comically rich occasions - a much-anticipated maiden goal against Huddersfield couldn't have looked more amateurish, with Sissoko gracelessly attempting to stroke the ball into the bottom left corner but instead succeeding in getting it to loop off Christopher Schindler and into the right side of the net.

'Wake me up before you go-go, who needs Bale when you've got Sissoko', a typical slice of terrace humour, soon took off, and it felt like Sissoko's undeniable work-rate was being gingerly acknowledged (through a protective veil of irony) if not his actual talent.

Who knows how Spurs might have fared had a half-fit Sissoko not featured in the home leg against Ajax

And yet, there had to be a point at which the laughter died down, and die down it did last season when Spurs were left horrendously exposed in midfield.

Victor Wanyama's knees were seemingly made of oatmeal, Moussa Dembele had lost his last duel with Paul Pogba and was to say his tearful goodbyes to the Spurs squad in January, and Harry Winks was coming back from surgery on an ankle injury which then-manager Mauricio Pochettino revealed was chronic.

For once, Sissoko wasn't the comic interlude to be occasionally indulged in when fresh legs or a rotation option was needed, but a serious first-team player. As Spurs found themselves sinking without in their Champions League group, the gravity of the situation couldn't be overstated. Were they about to become a laughing stock too?

Sissoko was a huge reason why Spurs got out of their Champions League group

It's here that we need to actually discuss Sissoko as a player rather than a punchline - what did he offer to the team in a year that ended up so fatefully for Spurs' squad.

Even Sissoko himself would probably agree that he didn't possess the technique of Christian Eriksen or the defensive awareness of Victor Wanyama at his peak, and Spurs have understandably sought since last season to recruit midfielders with a more expansive range of passing in Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele.

But quite a lot of journalists at the time of Sissoko's renaissance let themselves down by reducing his role to that of the 'chaos factor', almost as if the former Toulouse man had no agency over what he was doing on the pitch, when his skill set was in actuality both unique, and simple to understand.

Sissoko is incredibly good at using his strength to avoid challenges

It is a fact that there are not many 6'2" central midfielders, and the combination of Sissoko's frame and ability to cleverly pick the right moment to powerfully and elegantly carry the ball from midfield were an enormous asset to Spurs when they needed it the most.

Newcastle fans 'warned' Spurs that Sissoko could rarely muster up the interest to find an extra gear when the reality was he probably couldn't muster up the interest to play for Newcastle - his stamina too is remarkable and allows him to dominate the latter stages of big games.

Against Inter at Wembley, an 'elimination game' for Spurs where they had to find a goal to stay in the Champions League, Sissoko showed exactly how his rare mixture of athletic gifts and dribbling prowess could turn a game on its head.

Picking the ball up on the crowded right touchline late in the match, he used his body and acceleration to stave off three Inter players. This meant that he didn't even need a particularly incisive pass to put Spurs through, finding Dele among the now decluttered Inter defence, who obligingly teed up Eriksen.

Sissoko conceded a penalty in the Champions League final against Liverpool

The wry smiles were now cheers of ecstasy, and the somewhat knowing comparison of Sissoko to Spurs' greatest ever Welshman by the Spurs supporters was replaced by a heartfelt 'Ooh, Moussa Sissoko'.

But the laughable idea that Sissoko was a simple siege instrument remained, with Spurs' 0-1 Champions League semi-final first leg defeat to Ajax at home, an understandably forgotten match an excellent case study to disprove it.

With Spurs looking like little more than training cones up against the delicate wizardly of Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek, things went from bad to worse when Jan Vertonghen's troubling concussion forced an early exit.

What will the next chapter of Sissoko's career be under Mourinho?

Pochettino cleverly elected for a tactical substitution rather than a like-for-like one, and Sissoko, who was barely recovered from injury, successfully slowed the dizzying foxtrot of the Ajax midfield to walking pace - not through any abstract and insulting idea of 'chaos', but through his directness and supreme physical conditioning.

When Sissoko was responsible for a heart-wrenchingly unlucky handball in the first minute of the Champions League final, with his name ringing around the stadium seconds before, the reaction was not a collective scoff of exasperation, but of genuine sympathy for a player who had given so much to help Spurs get there.

There's nothing ironic about the Spurs fans' appreciation for Sissoko now, even if some of them are yet to be convinced that he's a sustainable solution for Jose Mourinho's midfield.

Sissoko is now a real leader at Spurs, and an asset to their squad

Though the lack of ball progression when Sissoko is stuck in a midfield pivot with Winks is painful at times, the two midfielders were defensively immaculate as Spurs got underway under Manchester United, and Mourinho will be looking to make Sissoko one of his trusty deputies at the club.

Indeed, Sissoko is such a respected statesman at the club now that, watching a similar player in Gedson Fernandes struggle with the transition to Premier League football in almost identical fashion, it seems funnier to think that the Frenchman himself was once in the shoes of the ungainly Portuguese youngster.

Sissoko could tell him that you just need to hang in there long enough to have the last laugh.

Source : 90min