When Jose Mourinho was appointed manager of Tottenham Hotspur following the departure of Mauricio Pochettino, it raised many questions what the Portuguese maestro would do with this talent laden Spurs squad.
While it’s obvious the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min and Dele Alli will be an integral part of Mourinho’s plans, it’ll be fascinating to see how he handles some of the other players who aren’t guaranteed starters. One such player whose fortunes are up in the air is Moussa Sissoko.
Sissoko’s arrival at Tottenham just over three years ago might have set the stage for future drama, as the Frenchman and his agent Bakari Sanogo navigated a last-minute reversal in negotiations between the then-Newcastle midfielder, Everton, and Tottenham on the final day of the transfer deadline. After Newcastle were relegated and Sanogo’s talks with Chelsea and Tottenham dragged on, Everton agreed to Sissoko’s price tag and thought they’d closed the deal – until Tottenham signed him instead.
After that dramatic entrance, however, Sissoko got down to business. Proving himself under Pochettino’s guidance to be a very handy contributor, especially in the last 18 months, and always fulfilling his role wholeheartedly, the imposing player’s energy, work rate and athleticism appeared a good fit for Mourinho’s counter punching approach.
Sissoko’s performance with the Spurs also got him called back up to France’s reigning champion national team after their 2018 World Cup win. Discussing his “return to favour” with the France’s Le Parisien in September, the Frenchman attributed his turnaround to spending far more time as a central midfielder and to gaining confidence over the course of several matches at the start of the year. He even gave his agent a shoutout, saying Bakari Sanogo has helped him see where he can improve.
The fact Sissoko’s so versatile was another reason for optimism, as he gives his new manager plenty of tactical flexibility as to how best deploy him, for he can play in a variety of midfield roles and formations and even at full back if need be.
Having not started Mourinho’s first game in charge against West Ham and heard the former Manchester United coach’s comments, though, it certainly looks like Sissoko faces an uphill battle to convince his new manager of what he brings to the team. “When I see Moussa, he is a very good player, but he is very different than my needs. I need that stability from Dier and the kid to move the ball faster, also positionally and also to find the attacking players in the positions we want,” explained Mourinho.
Sissoko, however, has faced his fair share of criticism and setbacks, so he’ll be eager to rise to the challenge and prove his worth. Possessing a good range of attributes, there’s certainly a lot Sissoko can offer.
To begin with his defensive output, and the man who’s learnt so much under the tactically sophisticated tutelage of Pochettino is a real asset in this regard. Full of energy and intensity in his approach, he does a top job of making life uncomfortable for his enemies. A keen presser who’s always on the lookout for triggers to arise such as an opponent receiving back to goal, in an open body posture, in wide areas or if they are inheriting a poor pass, Sissoko pounces to get at his targets. In doing so, this ensures they can’t easily turn him or enjoy much time on the ball, which impacts their ability to execute.
Factor in his hulking strength, speed and relentlessness to win back the ball, plus how he angles his pressure to cut off pass routes behind him, and it’s easy to see why he’s so competent here.
The same goes for his counterpressing, where he hunts down the ball after Tottenham lose it. This subsequently gives the opponent minimal time to assess options while giving Tottenham a great chance of recovering possession high against spread out teams who are preparing for a transition of their own.
When it comes to settling back into a mid or low block, Sissoko’s shown how efficiently he stays in shape, shifts laterally, drops back in unison, marks opponents in his zone or steps out to press.
Moreover, by communicating with his colleagues, this has seen him crossover marking duties well when opposition players perform rotations around him.
A manful competitor in aerial duels too, the intimidating 187 cm enforcer acquits himself admirably in these duels by using his explosive leap, capacity to read the ball’s flight and balance.
Although he can sometimes be overzealous in his attempts to win back possession, with his timing being off on occasion, it’s been pleasing to see his intent to force turnovers and get stuck in.
Sissoko’s work on the attacking side of things accompanies his stopping efforts nicely. Catching the eye most keenly with his ball carrying prowess, his powerful forward surges are always a highlight, with these seeing him place backlines under pressure and lure opponents out of shape to get at backlines. So quick and hard to push off the ball, this means he often rides challenges sternly and draws fouls in key areas.
If inheriting possession in tight spaces, the way he protects the ball by getting his body between the man and the ball and uses his arms and shoulders, gives him a good platform to spin away or hold up the ball while he waits for a viable option.
To switch the focus over to his passing, and the French international typically keeps things simple most of the time to get the ball into the feet of Spurs’ more attackingly talented players. If the situation arises he can, however, play some more expansive passes, such as penetrative line breaking passes, crafty through balls or switches of play.
Tying everything together with his movement, Sissoko’s quality in this compartment allows him to make space for his colleagues and find openings for himself. In terms of manufacturing room for his teammates, he’s excellent at moving to open up passing lanes and pinning markers so his mates can exploit unoccupied spaces.
On an individual level, he embarks on some damaging runs into the channels and into the box, which are so hard to track, plus supports attacks in wider and central areas by forming 5v4 and 4v3 numerical superiorities to help bypass their foes.
By the numbers from the last five seasons, his 2.24 dribbles per game, 1.93 progressive runs pg, 1.65 touches inside the box pg, 4.14 accurate final third passes pg at 80%, 3.42 interceptions pg, 1.15 tackles pg, 4.1 free ball pick ups pg and 2.6 ball recoveries pg demonstrate his solid two-way contribution.
While it’ll be a tough ask to replicate his amazing form from Spurs’ memorable run to the Champions League final last campaign, it was encouraging to see him gain some minutes in his team’s 4-2 victory over Olympiakos this week.
Determined and always willing to do his part for the benefit of the team, the experienced 30-year-old will relish every chance to endear himself to Mourinho even if the Portuguese whizz may take some convincing.