When news broke that Spurs (or anyone) was willing to pay £30m for Moussa Sissoko many eyebrows were raised. Despite having a good Euros, Sissoko has a reputation for inconsistency and questionable commitment. When he first joined Newcastle in January 2013, he looked like a fine player, hitting three goals and two assists in his first 12 Premier League matches, including a brace against Chelsea in just his second appearance. However, since then he has only managed eight goals and 15 assists in the 106 League appearances since his debut season for Newcastle, with nearly half of those assists coming just last season.
Sissoko has a habit of only turning up in ‘big games’. Scoring goals in wins against Chelsea and Man City, scoring away at Arsenal, scoring the goal that kept Newcastle in the Premier League with his winner against West Ham on the final day of the 2014-15 season, and scoring in a 3-0 win against Swansea that sparked a five match unbeaten run at the end of last season. On top of this he often has stand out performances against the bigger sides including Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Spurs.
His pattern of pulling out the big performances for the big matches continued at the Euros, putting in group-stage-performances strong enough to work his way into France’s first team for their quarter final match against Iceland where he caused problems down the right, before being given a more central role in the semi-final and final against Germany and Portugal, where he was arguably France’s best player over the two matches.
His Euro performance may be a case of Sissoko turning the heat up in games that will get him more attention, as he knows the world is watching and will have been undoubtedly trying to attract a big club following Newcastle’s relegation, but there is also a chance that Sissoko might just actually be a ‘big game player’ who benefited from being surrounded by players of a higher level than he had around him at Newcastle.
Playing alongside Pogba, in front of Matuidi and behind Payet and Griezmann, clearly improved Sissoko’s game as they offered more support, cover and overall quality than he’d usually have alongside him. At Spurs, he’d also have a higher level of teammate than he’s had before, receiving cover and support from Dier and Dembele, aswell as having the creativity of Lamela, Eriksen and Alli around him. This may be what Sissoko needs in order to adapt a more consistent style.
Another way in which Pochettino could possibly get the best out of Sissoko is giving him more responsibility. The Frenchman seems to thrive off of responsibility. In his first ever match as Newcastle United captain, he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against QPR. Rafa Benitez then made the decision to make Sissoko captain for the last six games of last season – replacing Jonjo Shelvey who wore the armband previously. Benitez claimed that he believed Sissoko had a “big influence” at the club, due to the large number of French players Newcastle have. In the first of these six matches, Newcastle beat Swansea 3-0, with Sissoko getting on the scoresheet.
Sissoko had an outstanding second match against Man City, terrorising City’s defence numerous times and exploiting Kolarov’s defensive weaknesses and his assist earned The Magpies a 1-1 draw.
They then went to Anfield where another strong Sissoko performance helped them come from two down to draw 2-2.
A win and a draw against Palace and Villa respectively maintained this impressive unbeaten run, but their best was yet to come, as in the sixth and final game that Sissoko captained Newcastle for, they stuck five past Spurs in that infamous game that us Spurs fans tend not to talk about. Sissoko’s powerful run down the left was followed by a dive (yes, dive) that earned Newcastle a penalty which lead to their third goal, which then triggered a series of chances and goals for them as Spurs became increasingly lighter defensively. I think it’s clear that Sissoko’s appointment as captain played a big part in their six game unbeaten run at the end of the season, and although it wasn’t enough to keep them up, it has gone some way to proving that Sissoko can perform consistently well.
That isn’t to say that we need to make Sissoko captain in order for him to play well, but it does suggest that Sissoko does perform better when there is a greater worth or importance to his role. This partly explains why he seems to perform well at international level, as each individual game at the World Cup or Euros holds more importance than each Premier League game individually. This is probably why he has the same amount of World Cup goals in three appearances, as he managed in the league last season in 37 appearances. He seems to only turn it on when it really matters to him.
Pochettino may need to give Sissoko responsibility by giving him important roles in midfield in big matches. For example, France manager Didier Deschamps switched Moussa’s role for the final two games in order to get the best out of him. Although Sissoko was performing well on the right, the impact he could have on matches through the centre with his strong, powerful playing style was much greater. By switching his position for the two most important games, it meant Sissoko could relish a more pivotal role in the biggest matches of his career, and his relentless enthusiasm in these matches suggests that Deschamps made the correct decision.
His versatility isn’t just something that can be used to improve his performances however, as his ability to play almost anywhere in midfield is something that Pochettino can use to alter the way we approach certain games. For example, if teams are playing a high line or pushing their full backs on, Sissoko’s strengths would be either out wide or supporting the striker where he can use his strength and pace to get in behind teams or exploit the space out wide. However in tighter matches where teams are more compact, the team could benefit from Sissoko being played deeper in a central midfield role, where his power can be used to win midfield battles, and he can use his passing range to try and unlock tight defences and create chances for our more attacking players.
Sissoko will bring many different skills to Tottenham, and his style is also quite dissimilar to any other player at the club. He’s much more direct than Eriksen and Lamela, and stronger than the likes of Onomah, Son and Nkoudou. He has the ability to beat players, not through skill and guile like our current attackers, but through pure pace and power. His rapid acceleration combined with his ability to dribble and strength to hold of players gives him a similar dribbling style to Dembele, although Sissoko will beat players with more threat and purpose, in more advanced, dangerous areas meaning he can create more chances.
He also has a wider range of passes than Dier, Dembele and Alli. He’ll play the risky option more than most of our midfielders would, and creates chances through incisive through balls and probing long passes. Sissoko got seven assists last season, which is an impressive enough return as it is, but when you consider that Newcastle only scored 44 times in the league, you realise that Sissoko alone made 16% of their goals, which highlights the importance he had to their team. He’ll also make constant runs both on and off the ball, either out wide or through the centre, which will benefit Kane hugely as he likes to feed off players in and around him. This will also add an extra dimension to our attacks as we lack players who run from deep.
There are however, question marks over his defensive discipline as he’s a very attack minded player. This may deter Pochettino from playing him alongside Dier in midfield initially, but he may work on this role with him in order for him to be adequate cover for Dembele when need be. I have also seen some people question his work rate, but on his day, you’ll struggle to find a more persistent, relentless and energetic player than Sissoko. When he’s up for it, he’ll challenge for every ball, track back well, make non-stop forward runs and I’m sure he’ll adapt to Spurs’ pressing style very quickly. Pochettino would hardly allow the club to sign a player that doesn’t suit our style, let alone demand we sign him no matter what the cost, as he reportedly did.
An area that Sissoko does need to improve on however, is goals. He clearly has the ability to score, his goals are usually fine finishes, but he just doesn’t do it enough. 11 goals from 118 appearances is just not good enough for a player worth £30million (Unless you’re Yannick Bolasie and do a crazy skill every now and then). Sissoko has all the tools to be a goalscorer, but for some reason it just hasn’t happened. This could be due to Newcastle using him as their prime playmaker, as he does seem to hit more assists than goals every season. This means that Sissoko was in the team to make goals for their other attackers, whilst no one made the chances for him.
This is evident when you compare his stats to Wijnaldum, a player of a similar position, in the same team, who played a very similar amount of minutes. WIjnaldum had 54 shots overall, with 42 coming inside the area, while Sissoko had 38 shots overall (about one per match) with only 26 of them being inside the area. Then when it comes to key passes and chances created, Sissoko had six and eight more respectively. The gap isn’t as big here, but it still shows how Sissoko’s game had obviously been given a focus on creating chances rather than scoring them.
Overall I feel that Spurs have taken a big risk with this transfer, but it’s one that potentially holds an even bigger reward. If they can keep Sissoko motivated, he’ll be a massive player for them, as they’ll have a physically overpowering midfielder who can operate a number of roles. Not only can he cover multiple positions, but he’ll be aiming to work himself into the team and make one of the positions his own, whether it’s out wide, in the centre of the pitch or a little more further forward.
Being at a club that is looking to challenge for things and playing in the Champions League should be enough to keep him happy, as well as the influential role he’ll have as one our most experienced players. He could be one to bring on the likes of Winks, Onomah and even Alli, as all of them have traits and skills that they could pick up from Moussa’s style. This responsibility, coupled with the faith of the fans and manager and the potential that the current squad holds might be enough to get a consistent run of form out of Sissoko, and if it is, then the eyebrow raising £30m might just turn out to be money well spent.