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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

A nudge to Winks: Tottenham's promising star must keep feet to ground

He has been excellent in midfield, but a look at Spurs teammate Alli's fortunes suggests young footballers are open to dips in form

Harry Winks, left, needs to be careful lest he gets tripped by expectations. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Harry Winks, left, needs to be careful lest he gets tripped by expectations. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

England debut on October 8, starting at the Bernabeu nine days later, it has been quite the few weeks for Harry Winks.

The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder emerged from both with reputation burnished. Indeed, his rise has been swift. Before Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League encounter with holders Real Madrid, Winks had started five Premier League games. It was his fourth full appearance in Europe’s elite club competition.

Yet he belied his lack of experience and his tender years. At 21, and against one of the game’s most accomplished midfields, Winks offered an exceptionally assured performance. Positioned at the heart of the Tottenham line up, he was calm in possession and courageous on the ball, too.

A product of the club’s academy, Winks used to watch with wonder Luka Modric during the Croat’s time at White Hart Lane. Five years on, he was pitted in direct confrontation, on football’s grandest stage. He did not look out of place.

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Impressive throughout, Winks's pass accuracy clocked at 91 per cent. Modric ranked at 88 per cent, teammate Isco at 90. Contrary to consensus, 31 of Winks’s 44 passes went forward. Playing at home and emboldened by three Champions League titles in four years, predictably Modric exerted more control. Alongside him, so too Toni Kroos, a World Cup winner.

But Winks shone even in such exalted company. Mauricio Pochettino found space for him in arguably his greatest test as Tottenham manager. It betrays the confidence the Argentine has in his protege. Granted, there were injuries to Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, but Pochettino chose instead to revert Eric Dier to centre-back. Winks occupied the middle.

Undeterred by the occasion or the opposition, Pochettino’s faith proved well founded.

A maturity off the pitch was matched by his performance on it. Analysing the game for British television, Frank Lampard compared Winks to Michael Carrick. Within the Tottenham squad, he has been labelled “Little Iniesta”.

If that feels a little fanciful, it stresses that caution is required as well. The English game has been pockmarked by potential unfulfilled. Players are hyped too readily, expected to contribute too much too soon.

A teammate of Winks for Tottenham and now for England, Dele Alli has already justified the attention and the expectation. Yet he has not started this campaign as he concluded the last. Suspended from Tottenham’s first three Champions League group games, he has not featured in Europe at all.

Alli enjoyed a breakout season in 2016/17, scoring 18 goals in 37 Premier League games. In eight thus far in 2017/18, he has found the net twice. In general, his influence has diminished.

The same age as Winks, it emphasises how emergent footballers are open to deep dips in form.

With Winks, it would be wise to pay heed. It is only the beginning, and it will be intriguing to see how he is utilised once Dembele and Wanyama return. What it does, though, is present Pochettino with options. Against Madrid, he deployed three tight in central midfield. Winks expands those permutations.

For England, it remains to be seen where he fits in. Devoid of a deep-lying playmaker, Winks does not appear the obvious answer, not until he is tested again, examined more thoroughly. Gareth Southgate is already an advocate. He is sure to try him out again.

Should England perform admirably at the World Cup next summer, Pochettino will have played his part. Of the national team’s last 21 debutants, his teams have supplied 17. Winks represents the latest.

His most recent display promises much. If Harry Kane made September at Spurs his, then his namesake can lay claim to the first few weeks of October. As the Tottenham supporters like to crow, Winks is one of their own as well.

He has a long way to go yet to match Kane's import, both for club and for country. But the past 10 days have been testament to Winks’s temperament as much as his talent.

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