It has been six-and-a-half months since Harry Winks last started a match and 10 months since he last played at his top level with full fitness before November’s ankle injury against Crystal Palace.
That is a long time in football, and players who miss lengthy stretches can sometimes be left behind. Teammates or rivals can seize their opportunities to impress. Sides can evolve without them.
Yet Winks has not lost any of his importance during his absence, for club or for country. Both squads need a player with his talents.
England are still missing a deep-lying playmaker, a fact that was all too clear in their World Cup semifinal defeat against Croatia and in Saturday’s loss to Spain.
Those wondering who could possibly fill the void have obviously forgotten Winks, who excels at keeping possession with quick, short passes and was named the man of the match in his debut for the Three Lions against Lithuania last October.
Had he been on the bench against Croatia in Russia, he might just have halted England’s infuriating and regressive habit of punting the ball straight back to their opponents as the pressure increased.
It is quite a challenge to become England’s version of Luka Modric, the newly crowned UEFA Men’s Player of the Year. But Winks faced the Croatian twice in the Champions League last term, starting both matches against Real Madrid, and he more than held his own as Spurs drew 1-1 at the Bernabeu before triumphing 3-1 at Wembley.
Winks also played throughout Tottenham’s impressive 4-1 home win over Liverpool in October. He can be just as influential for his club as his national team.
Central midfield is a problem area for Spurs, and there is a clear need to plan for life after Mousa Dembele.
The matches against Newcastle and Fulham at the start of this season showed that Spurs still need the Belgian, who came off the bench to shore up the midfield and play an influential role in both victories. However, the 2-1 defeat at Watford just before the international break only increased the concerns about his fitness and consistency.
When the Hornets launched their fightback in the final 25 minutes, Dembele — who this time played from the start — looked tired and sluggish. He conceded the foul that led to Troy Deeney’s equaliser. He was then beaten for pace by Daryl Janmaat, who crossed and gave Roberto Pereyra a header on goal, and finally he made little effort to stop Craig Cathcart from leaping above him and heading in the winner.
In the past, Dembele would have been one of the first names on the team sheet against Liverpool on Saturday. But it is less clear what to expect from the 31-year-old now, and any mistakes in front of the defence could be fatal against Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing side and rapid front three.
The Reds’ decisive goal in their 1-0 victory over Brighton last month highlights the danger. It took one sloppy moment from Yves Bissouma in his own half, and James Milner’s tackle gave Mohamed Salah the opportunity to fire into the bottom corner.
Spurs will need to be safe but quick with their passing in central midfield, and Winks has the perfect skill set for the task. The only question is whether he is ready to start a match of this magnitude when he has made only three brief substitute appearances this term.
Perhaps not, but he might still have a part to play, like against Watford when he replaced Dembele in the 86th minute — rather too late — and promptly helped his team create a headed chance for Harry Kane six yards out. It was an immediate reminder of what Winks can offer with his positive passing.
Mauricio Pochettino has other selection dilemmas ahead of Saturday’s showdown. Does he opt for a back three again, including the pacy Davinson Sanchez, against Liverpool’s three-pronged attack? Or does he go for a four-man rearguard, as he did when his team triumphed 3-0 at Manchester United?
The Argentinian has used various formations this season, so which will it be this time: 4-3-3, 3-1-4-2, 4-4-2 or a fourth system in five matches? And will there be a place for the returning Son Heung-Min, given that Lucas Moura has starred in the South Korean’s absence and was the Premier League’s player of the month?
Pochettino has decisions to make, but he will undoubtedly be happy that Winks has re-entered the picture and started to give him more headaches.
With Spurs beginning their European campaign next week and then their quest for a domestic cup, Winks is coming into contention at a good time and should soon be stepping up his bid to reclaim the status he enjoyed with both club and country last autumn.
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