Another Tottenham Hotspur game, another impressive display from Moussa Sissoko.
It’s hardly a surprise to see Sissoko perform well these days, such is the transformation he has experienced this term.
Just six months ago, the midfielder was considered a total flop. Spurs fans sighed when his name was included in the starting line-up, but Mauricio Pochettino stuck with him.
The manager’s patience paid off. Since October, Sissoko has arguably been Tottenham’s most consistent performer.
Not only that, the Frenchman is garnering a reputation as a big game player, a man Pochettino can call upon to aid the team’s cause in the toughest matches.
Indeed, his display against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night supported that line of thinking. Sissoko played a key role in a 1-0 victory that extended Spurs’ aggregate lead to 4-0 and secured safe passage to the Champions League quarter-finals.
So, how has Sissoko been strengthening Tottenham in big games this season? Here are some theories.
Confidence in dangerous areas
Pochettino likes his team to build patiently from the back. Sissoko’s presence is important in that regard; he drops deep when the defenders are in possession, particularly on the right side of the pitch, ensuring his teammates have an outlet.
Much like Harry Winks, who operates further towards the left side, Sissoko is always happy to receive the ball. What’s more, his capacity to play risky passes allows Spurs to make the transition from defence to attack.
Dortmund put plenty of pressure on Tottenham, particularly in the first half, but Sissoko stuck to Pochettino’s philosophy, working triangles with Serge Aurier and Christian Eriksen, attempting but not rushing to get Spurs further up the pitch.
Against a side like Dortmund, this can be dangerous; the Germans attempted to carve Tottenham open at every opportunity whenever they recovered the ball. But Sissoko’s confidence and accuracy – he attempted and completed more passes (42/46) than any other Spurs player – gradually helped the visitors to settle.
Bypassing the press
In addition to his confidence in possession when it comes to passing, Sissoko has also become more assured when running with the ball. There are still times when he resembles Bambi on ice, especially in the final third (more on that later), but generally, he has improved in motion.
The 29-year-old is effectively playing the Mousa Dembele role. Having replaced Dembele in Pochettino’s preferred line-up even before the Belgian left for China, Sissoko is now responsible for bypassing the opposition’s press in the middle third and starting attacks from deep areas.
First of all, his strength allows him to beat most opponents to loose balls. Against Dortmund, Sissoko made 11 ball recoveries, at least five more than any other Spurs player. He is subsequently inclined to burst forward with the ball – different to Dembele’s elegant dribble but similar in its objective – before offloading to a more creative player.
This is a vital attribute in big games. When good teams press high and win the ball, they are more likely to produce goalscoring opportunities than lesser sides. Sissoko makes sure this happens as infrequently as possible.
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Protecting his most vulnerable teammate
There are three right-backs in Tottenham’s first-team squad. It is perhaps ironic, then, that right-back is the team’s weakest area, such has been the level of performance from Serge Aurier and Kieran Trippier this season.
With that in mind, both players are fortunate to have Sissoko lining up on the right of the midfield diamond. He hasn’t always been the most reliable defensive midfielder, but his propensity to support his right-back has always been admirable.
This was once again the case in Dortmund. Sissoko was successful with three of his four tackles and made three headed clearances – only Aurier and Davinson Sanchez made as many. On top of that, Sissoko filled in whenever Aurier was caught slightly up-field.
A better example of this can be found by looking back at Spurs’ 3-1 league victory over Chelsea in November. Aurier played as more of a wing-back that day (Dortmund’s quality prevented him from getting too far forward) and Sissoko was often called upon to track Eden Hazard’s runs, enjoying plenty of success in one of his formative displays this term.
Improving his final ball
Much like Dembele before him, if Sissoko keeps up his current form the question of goals – or a lack thereof – is likely to emerge. He has failed to find the net in 33 appearances across all competitions this term, and Spurs could certainly do with their midfielders contributing more goals.
That said, Sissoko’s final product is improving. It was his pinpoint pass that sent Kane through to score the crucial away goal on Tuesday, and he was desperately unlucky not to find the net against Arsenal in the game prior, forcing one of the saves of the season from Bernd Leno.
So long as Sissoko continues to contribute as he is now, Tottenham will never be reliant on him adding goals to his game. In fact, it would arguably serve Spurs better if he stayed away from the final third; often he looks as if he’s about to trip over his own feet when sent through on goal.
There have been sporadic moments of proficiency in attacking areas. His burst forward and well-timed pass in the build-up to Eriksen’s decisive goal against Inter Milan in the Champions League group stages was a pivotal contribution. Tottenham fans, though, are aware of his limitations, which are currently being far outweighed by his strengths.