It was the chance he should have scored. As Kieran Trippier’s curling cross breached the Watford penalty area on Sunday afternoon, Harry Kane must have thought to himself that lightning does indeed strike twice.
Uncharacteristically from the Tottenham talisman however, the neck muscles proved impuissant this time round; unable to replicate the very action that had worked with such aplomb at Old Trafford only six days earlier. As Harry’s header drifted waywardly over, so too were his side’s chances of salvaging a late draw at Vicarage Road.
Further analysis of this opportunity naturally centred on either Golden Boy spurning a golden opportunity or Trippier’s delicious delivery; the crossing connoisseur putting it on a plate for his teammate for the second game in succession. But beyond potential provider and misfiring finisher the chance was ultimately carved out by young Harry Winks — the late sub whose prompt, precise pass to Trippier granted the wing-back the time and space to pick out Kane.
Had Kane proceeded to nod past Foster, Winks’ involvement would have been integral; his swift switching of the play elevated from crowd-satisfying daisy-cutter to the “pass before the assist” — a once underrated contribution now given greater significance in the modern game, and rightly so.
To consider this “pass before the assist” in tandem with Tottenham Hotspur will only evoke memories of one Luka Modrić — the master of the pre-assist. Like Michael Carrick before him, Modrić had an unrivalled knack of sending the ball from A to B with one deft endeavour; his teammates picked-out behind enemy lines at haste, presenting them the necessary conditions to lay on a likely assist.
Winks’ pass to Trippier was just that, and in similar vein to Carrick and Modrić, Winks’ importance to a Tottenham team is unjustly underplayed at times. Of course, Winks is unable to boast the playmaking prowess of the two names mentioned but, in danger of going full Liam Neeson in Taken here, he, like them, does possess a particular set of skills: the ability to dictate the tempo of a football match in favour of his team.
On Sunday against Watford, with Spurs chasing an equaliser, Winks entered the fold with five minutes remaining. When in the action Winks made 10 successful passes, including the one to Trippier, but it was the speed in which he dispatched these passes that set him apart. As a post-match Mauricio Pochettino seethed over the slow, “friendly-like” tempo of Tottenham’s first-half, Winks’ cameo must have posed his manager the question: why, in his need for speed, hadn’t he turned to his number eight sooner?
With Watford having set up in an ultra-narrow 4-2-2-2 formation, Gracia’s men stifled Spurs by overcrowding the central areas, forcing their opponents to play the ball out wide to full-backs. Watford enticed Spurs to then cross into a thronging box packed-out with man mountains Kabasele and Cathcart; this pair further supported by the equally towering Capoue or Doucouré who dropped back from midfield.
In this environment it was imperative for Tottenham to move the ball at pace; shifting the ball from left to right in the hope a gap would materialise courtesy of a lapse in concentration from a Watford defender not shuffling across the line. But to this Spurs had no answer: Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen dallied in possession, while it was unreasonable to expect Mousa Dembélé to be more ball-player than ball-carrier. With the benefit of hindsight, it was Winks who was the antidote to this quandary.
Another problem posed by Watford, and another solution to be found in Winks. Just as the youngster can inject pace into our passing game, an additional string to his bow is a competence in putting the brakes on when game-control is evading Pochettino’s men — and without him in these situations, Spurs do suffer. As when Watford rallied in the second-half, Spurs failed to halt the onslaught through a composed figure — Winks! — slowing things down. With the game played at breakneck speed Watford got their goals and, essentially, the match.
Had Winks started on Sunday, perhaps Tottenham’s unblemished start to the season would remain so, but another “perhaps” is that this encounter came too soon for a player plagued by injury for much of last season. Following this defeat though, Pochettino is sure to shake things up for Liverpool next weekend, and the man he has called “the perfect midfielder” and, unforgettably, “little Iniesta” will likely get his chance. And if his five minutes in Hertfordshire were anything to go by, it couldn’t be more deserved.
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