“Ohh, Moussa Sissoko” came the chant from the Wembley equivalent of the old Park Lane, reverberating passionately around the national stadium as more fans wanted to add their voice to the ensemble. And this time it wasn’t ironic.
Entering the most important week of their season to date, eternally plagued by a string of injuries and with the pressure intolerable, Tottenham swatted Chelsea aside and left it late to beat Internazionale to keep their Champions League dreams alive.
Instrumental to both victories was Sissoko. A £30 million deadline day signing in 2016 from Newcastle United, many scoffed. They baulked at the transfer fee and rightly so, as Sissoko’s performances had far from vindicated Mauricio Pochettino’s decision. In fact, they undermined it significantly.
The Frenchman became the subject of social media abuse, often the scapegoat for a poor team performance. He adds no value to the side, the argument went. He looks uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. Two years, nine assists and two goals later, little had changed.
But what a dramatic turnaround in fortune.
From jeers, leers and ironic cheers whenever he was in shooting range, to genuine cult hero. From desperately searching for potential suitors to indispensable squad member. From an inescapable sense of hopelessness to authentic excitement. “I made the difference,” he told Spurs TV in the wake of the Inter win. An accurate assessment.
Ten minutes remained and Spurs had huffed and puffed throughout, but to no avail, as potential progress to the last-16 of the Champions League hung by a thread. But Sissoko found himself with the ball at his feet and space to run into. The perfect storm. He attacked powerfully and found Dele Alli, who held up play long enough to assist Christian Eriksen. The difference-maker.
In all, Sissoko played 14 passes in the attacking third, created two chances, attempted four take-ons, made three interceptions and one block. Statistics reflective of a brilliant all-round performance.
This followed a decisive display against Chelsea in which Sissoko was essential in breaking up play in the Blues’ midfield, the area through which they look to play. In truth, this has been the theme of his season, a campaign where he’s made himself a new home in the centre of the pitch.
Although his Spurs career began as a right winger, the position ultimately left him broken. Credit to Sissoko, then, for cocooning himself away from the criticism and emerging as a beautiful butterfly in centre midfield. A position that overcomes his limitations as a player and emphasises his strengths; those of power and industry. And a deft touch or two.
Perhaps it’s best not to get too overly carried away, but Sissoko deserves praises for the way in which he’s transformed what was seemingly a doomed Spurs career that would end only in a welcome exit. Who would have thought? He’s neither the ideal Mousa Dembele replacement, nor the long-term solution. But for now, nobody can fault the job he’s doing.