The scapegoat who survived the slaughter

Oh Moussa Sissoko.

Three words sung so emphatically in the away end at Selhurst Park on a sodden Saturday evening; the vibrant chant reverberating its way across the English Channel, into the opulent halls of the French Football Federation’s Parisian HQ before hypnotically booming into the eardrums of Didier Deschamps.

For after Tottenham’s win over Crystal Palace — in which the Big Man had a Big Hand in proceedings — the World Cup winners have brought the burly midfielder back in from the cold ahead of their next set of fixtures. (Wait, what’s the French for: who needs Bale when you’ve got Mbappé, Griezmann and Sissoko?)

Detractors may point out the absence of Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba for France has played a part, but there’s no denying Sissoko’s fine performances of late — in which he has started (and starred) in five consecutive games for club — has warranted reintegration into Deschamps’ plans.

But even so, it’s not as if we should be surprised: Sissoko is someone highly-valued by his national team manager — a fact evidenced by the player’s 53 caps, and his key role in France’s journey to the final of Euro 2016. It could be said only a lack of fitness and form at Tottenham — not to mention the abundance of talent Les Blues boast— has halted Sissoko featuring more frequently for France.

Yet as well as Deschamps, Sissoko is also highly-valued by his club manager, too. In the face of much adversity when doing so, Pochettino has featured the player 59 times since the Frenchman’s arrival two years ago. It’s something the Argentine jokingly addressed post-match at Palace: “I hope the fans won't criticise me now when I don't play him.”

It’s with these comments then, that Pochettino spotlights the anomaly surrounding Moussa Sissoko at Tottenham: how can a player who is considered key for managers of both club and country when fit and in-form be the subject of such condemnation from supporters? Have fans’ expectations of the player been entirely unreasonable, or has the player been unequivocally terrible up until now?

It’s obviously difficult to argue against the latter — Sissoko has been underwhelming in a Spurs shirt these past two seasons. But it speaks volumes of the fans’ relationship with the player that a struggling Sissoko has never received the same level of backing gifted to the likes of Erik Lamela, Vincent Janssen or Roberto Soldado.

To my mind, this is because the real problem Spurs fans had with Moussa Sissoko went beyond matters on the pitch. To fans, Sissoko — and more pertinently, the nature of his acquisition — represented an embodiment of the disillusionment they had (and still have) with the club hierarchy’s decision-making process.

When Pochettino arrived in north London four-and-a-half-years ago, fans had been warned transfer spending would be dwarfed by domestic rivals until the completion of the new stadium. Quelling fan excitement, Pochettino and the powers above constantly reiterated the club had to be “clever” and “operate differently” in the transfer market (as they couldn’t compete with the financial muscle of those around them).

And then came 31 August 2016. Tottenham broke their transfer record on deadline day to pay £30m for a player from a relegated team on the basis of his performances at an international tournament. (“Clever” didn’t really cut it.) As a result, Sissoko’s Spurs career was hamstrung before he had even kicked a ball. He suddenly became a pawn in the dispute between board and fans.

If Sissoko were to prove a revelation on the pitch then, Spurs fans would undoubtedly feel the smug smile of Daniel Levy burning down from the directors’ box. Yet if Sissoko’s time at Tottenham were to be a failure, it would justify fans’ growing disillusionment that — despite being an astute businessman — Levy is severely lacking an adequate comprehension of how football works.

Back to the present though, and credit must be given to Sissoko for turning his Tottenham career around after unwittingly playing the role of scapegoat up for slaughter these past two years.  

Was he the player Pochettino wanted to take his team forward in the summer of 2016? Probably not. But if he continues in this rich vein of form, then Sissoko could well turn out to be the player that Pochettino and Spurs actually need at this moment in time.

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