Obviously there’s an inherent risk in making too many predictions based on a pre-season friendly. That being said, given that last week’s 6-1 pasting of Inter was our final friendly before the league campaign begins this Saturday against Everton, it seems reasonable to pay a bit closer attention to this particular game. We’ll talk more about Vincent Janssen’s performance later this week as well as the interesting 4-4-2 Spurs used in the second half. But first we need to take a closer look at the midfield battle as we try to figure out who will be the fourth regular midfielder for Spurs—Ryan Mason or Harry Winks.
Mason had an upper-hand headed into the season. He’s been a part of the senior setup for nearly two seasons, has started nearly 30 league games, and has far more experience than Winks. He also is Tottenham’s best midfielder when it comes to making late runs into the box. That said, Mason has long been plagued by a lack of positional discipline and an inability to execute Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing system. This is why Winks has a real shot at leapfrogging Mason in the Spurs midfield.
Mason’s First Half Against Inter Milan
Ryan Mason did some good things in the first half playing alongside Eric Dier in the midfield two. The most notable highlight for him came in the 10th minute when he burst into the box unmarked and slid his shot just past the near post:
The key here is Mason’s vertical running ability and the way he identifies the enormous hole in the Inter defense.
Six seconds after this screen capture, when it looks like there is very little on for Spurs as Inter have five guys in the frame defending only four Spurs players, Mason has surged into the box and created a great chance:
When Tottenham faces opposition that sit deep and try to frustrate the Spurs attack, a player like Mason can be an enormous asset as he provides those runs from deep that defenses can have a hard time picking up. This is something Mason does very well and also happens to be arguably the biggest hole in Mousa Dembélé’s game. If you remember, Mason scored the winner against Sunderland last season by making precisely that kind of run:
Unfortunately, this is really the only thing Mason brings to the table in midfield. His passing was erratic, but what really is a concern with Mason playing in the pivot is his continued struggles to pick up the nuances of Pochettino’s pressing system.
In situations where the decision was obvious and Mason could largely act on his own, his energy serves him well as he presses:
So here the ball is played into a wide area and the player receives it facing his own goal. That’s an obvious pressing cue and Mason handles it well.
Where he struggles is when the decision is more difficult and he has to make it in sync with his teammates:
In the above, the ball is played into midfield and the player receives the ball facing outside without an easy one touch passing option. It’s a good time to press. So Eric Dier closes on the ball. But nothing else happens because Mason doesn’t rotate forward. (Mason is the player in the midfield circle.) This means that the passing lane to Jeison Murillo is never closed and Inter is able to get out of a potentially nasty jam with minimal effort.
When Dier initiates the press, Mason and Alli need to react to that. Alli should surge forward into the passing lane to Murillo, but he cannot do that until Mason moves forward to close off the passing lane to the man closest to Alli. In this case, Alli didn’t move forward without Mason, so the only “damage” done is the press is easily broken by a backwards pass.
However, if Alli had moved forward to cut off the lane to Murillo and Mason had not stepped up to cover for Alli, Inter would have been able to break the press with a forward pass and then we’d be in quite a bit of trouble as Inter would be running at a Spurs defense without Dier as a shield since Dier had pressed forward. (Takeaway: Dele Alli is smart, y’all.)
This sort of error by Mason is the very thing that plagued him during the 2014-15 season when he was frequently starting alongside Nabil Bentaleb. In fact, Michael Caley wrote an entire post for the main page about what happened when the Spurs press was broken in midfield.
Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing system is devastating to the opposition when it is executed effectively. Pochettino teams disrupt the opposition attack in ways that few others can match. But the system is a high-risk-high-reward system. If one player fails to execute his role, the entire system can collapse. This was the story of the 2014-15 season at Spurs and it’s still a significant danger when Ryan Mason features in midfield.
Harry Winks in the Second Half Against Inter Milan
Winks came on at halftime for Mason and wasted no time making an impression. Here he is after only 90 seconds dropping off to support the defense after Ivan Perisic skipped past Cameron Carter-Vickers. Note how effortlessly he muscles Inter’s star winger off the ball:
Winks also showed an impressive understanding of his role in the defensive system for Spurs.
Consider this passage of play immediately after a turnover in the Spurs attacking third. Winks makes up a great deal of ground tracking back and recognizes that the right move is not to attack the ball in this case, but to track one of the runners and cut off the passing lane, thereby forcing the man in possession to slow play down and end the potential counter attack for Inter:
(Winks begins in the bottom right corner and then runs across the center of the screen, just ahead of the ball and cutting off the passing lane to the Inter player in the middle of the screen.)
In addition to those specific sequences, Winks also managed to stay in consistently good positions, offering himself as an auxiliary passing outlet for the attacking four, but never doing so in a way that compromised his ability to play as one of the two main central midfielders for Spurs. That sort of intelligence is rare and it is especially rare in a 20-year-old trying to work his way into the match day squad.
As of yet we have not had much opportunity to judge how Winks would work in the attack. In his pre-season cameos he’s generally been a serviceable passer in midfield, but we’ve not seen evidence (yet) that he can be a quality attacking threat in the Premier League. He looked to make a few Mason-like runs into the box, but never had opportunity to do so. (It didn’t help matters that the game was basically killed off 15 minutes into the second half and everyone sleepwalked through most of the last 30 minutes.) To take only one example, here we can see Winks pick up the ball in his own half, play it forward quickly to Lamela, and start to make a late run forward only to check the run as he realizes the opportunity isn’t there due to the positioning of the Inter defense:
What we have seen in very limited playing time so far is that Winks can physically hold his own with top flight players and that he understands Pochettino’s system and knows how to fulfill his defensive responsibilities in the system. It also doesn’t hurt that he seems to have the stamina required to play such a demanding role.
Last year at this time, we had no idea what Spurs’ midfield would look like. We had seen enough to know that Eric Dier Midfielder might be a thing and we’d seen Dele Alli do some decent things. But I don’t think anyone anticipated Dier, Alli, and Dembélé forming the core of the Tottenham midfield over the course of the season. Even so, one year later and Eric Dier has impressed enough in the holding midfield role to be linked with a move to Bayern Munich and Alli has established himself as arguably Tottenham’s best flair player and certainly one of the team’s greatest attacking threats. If a player is set for a similar breakthrough on the back of strong pre-season performances, one suspects it is Harry Winks. We’ll start to find out if Winks is up for it this Saturday.