Jose Mourinho’s arrival raises questions for Moussa Sissoko

Sissoko Title

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.

Image 1 - Sissoko's smartly angled pressing
Sissoko smartly angled pressing

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.

Image 2 - Great covering behind when his centre back steps out
Great covering behind when his centre back steps out

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.

Image 3 - Wicked line breaking pass
Wicked line breaking pass

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.

Image 4 - Sissoko neatly drawing two men
Sissoko neatly drawing two men

Image 5 - Sissoko pinning his man to help free up his teammate out wide
Sissoko pinning his man to help free up his teammate out wide

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.

Image 6 - Forming a 4v3 as he serves as the free man down the channel
Forming a 4v3 as he serves as the free man down the channel

Image 7 - Sissoko being the free man as Spurs form a 4v3
Sissoko being the free man as Spurs form a 4v3

Image 8 - Sissoko brilliant forward run to exploit the space
Sissoko brilliant forward run to exploit the space

Image 9 - Quality run in behind as he places huge pressure on the opposition
Quality run in behind as he places huge pressure on the opposition

Image 10 - Sissoko finding space well
Sissoko finding space well

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.

Van Dijk’s class continues to shine through for Liverpool

VDV

Virgil van Dijk’s been nothing short of exceptional since joining Liverpool in January for a staggering £75 million from Southampton.

Proving his worth again and again, the towering Dutchman has been instrumental towards the Reds’ brilliant start to the campaign and why they now look so formidable defensively. Van Dijk’s all encompassing performance in Liverpool’s dynamic win over Paris Saint-Germain offered another example of what a superb asset he is to Jurgen Klopp.

Facing off against one of the most fearsome frontlines in world football, he played a crucial role in making sure Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar endured a tough night at the office.

Physical, athletic and intelligent, he undertook his defensive work with the utmost authority and conviction. Indeed, being so coherent and forthright in his decision making granted him the ideal platform to nullify PSG’s multifaceted strikeforce. Showcasing terrific concentration and always checking his surroundings, the 27-year-old flawlessly chose when to step out and press his man, hold his post, shift across to support a teammate, drop back in unison with his backline or when to track a run in behind.

While his ability to read the play shone brightly, his speed was of equal importance, as this allowed him to rapidly jet across and cover any runs that had been missed by a colleague in wide areas or in transition. Clocked at a scintillating 32.4km/h, quicker than both Neymar or Mbappe recorded, this aspect of his armoury only compounded Thomas Tuchel’s side’s struggles to get the better of him.

Meanwhile, in battles of strength and aerial duels, the colossal 193 cm stopper made life extremely difficult for his adversaries here too. Possessing a powerful leap, hard to outmuscle and very adept at picking up the ball’s flight in the air, so he can duly adjust his body shape, Van Dijk hardly missed in a step in such confrontations.

Remaining well organised for the most part, the Dutch international could be constantly seen communicating and gesturing to his defensive confidantes when to hold their post, shift cross or move forwards or backwards. Another point of note that greatly assisted his, and his teammates’, effectiveness came from the wonderful protection provided to them by Liverpool’s energetic midfield.

Moving onto his offensive contribution, and the Breda born defender passed the ball with aplomb, where he did a top job of changing the angle of attacks, hitting penetrative line breaking passes and constructing attacking moves. Upon factoring in his ball carrying prowess, which often successfully provoked pressing actions to generate a free man or open an exploitable passing lanes, and he was a menace here too.

By the numbers, the fact he completed 94% of his 71 attempted passes, hit nine accurate long balls, made two key passes and chimed in with nine defensive actions demonstrated his fantastic contribution.

In his post-match comments, it was clear to tell how much he’s loving life at Anfield under Klopp’s tutelage, gleaming: “I’m enjoying every single bit of it. You know, it’s a great time to be a Liverpool player, you want to play these games, you want to play these clubs we are going to face. You want to play at the highest level (and), you know, enjoy it.

“I want to win things, I want to create memories here and write history as well with all these boys. You need to have ambitions, and with the size of this club, with the people around here and the history of the club, we want to try and win everything.”

Having unquestionably improved this sensational Liverpool team in the area that most needed addressing, Van Dijk’s impact is now a significant reason why the club are now considered genuine challengers for both the Premier League and the Champions League.

With every passing match, he continues to vindicate the club’s decision to fork out that sideable £75 million transfer fee. He’s just been so good.

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