Mauricio Pochettino was full of praise for his Tottenham Hotspur team after they clinched a top four finish with a 1-0 win over Newcastle United on Wednesday. The win at Wembley Stadium, combined with Chelsea drawing 1-1 at home to Huddersfield, put Spurs up four points over the Blues with one match to play.
Pochettino praised only two players during his post-match press conference, and ironically they were probably the two least likely players that fans would’ve expected him to praise: the makeshift midfield duo of Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko.
“I am so proud about all the players because today for me one of the best was Moussa Sissoko. I want to say thank you for how professional he was all season. Not too many people recognise him but I think he was fantastic today.
“Players like Wanyama who haven’t played too much, they were injured and today when you need to win they were there on the pitch giving their best. When we talk about the squad and how important it is in the season to respect them and treat them in the right way and today they were present and they played so well and they are part of the success of the team to finish in the top four for the third consecutive time.”
I’m going to give you all a moment to process this.
There, are we good?
Now. I don’t think there’s a regular reader of Carty Free who would have watched that match and thought “You know who Poch really should praise after that win? Wanyama and Sissoko.” While I’m not sure I would call it an abject performance from those two — it would be a little unfair since I’m almost certain they haven’t played together as a midfield pivot in a meaningful match together ever — it certainly was noteworthy only by virtue of it being pretty not great. The smooth passing and seamless transition from defense to attack was pretty absent against Newcastle, and Toon didn’t seem to have much difficulty carving straight through the center of the pitch.
However! They were probably only playing there because, thanks to the absence of Eric Dier, Harry Winks, and Mousa Dembele, they were literally the only options (leaving aside dropping Christian Eriksen into a pivot role). We talked about this some in the writer’s Slack after the match, and there were several of us that agreed that if you think about it, Pochettino praising those two, and Sissoko in particular, makes a strange sort of sense.
Look, Sissoko’s not great, and I think it’s not hyperbole to say so. He’s midfield depth, a role player, a scrub. That said, I’m sure he knew heading into this season that the prospects of extended minutes were virtually nil, and he could either put his head down, be a professional, and make the most of the limited opportunities that he had, or raise a holy stink about it and try to force a move. To his credit, he’s worked his tail off, had a great attitude, and by all accounts was a very supportive teammate the entire season.
And yes, he’s also been bad. But that still deserves some credit.
Attitude and work rate are the kinds of things that Pochettino loves, and it’s probably one of the reasons why he’s praised Sissoko in media comments before and kept him around. (That, and because there are probably zero clubs who are interested in taking him off of Spurs’ hands on his current form and wages.) That’s not to say that Spurs shouldn’t dump him this summer and bring in another player that’s better and/or younger with more upside. They absolutely should. But nobody expects a depth player to be as good or better than the player they are replacing. Sissoko fulfilled the role of depth player, and if he wasn’t adequate, he was at least present.
And going back to Wanyama for a second, Michael Caley noticed something about the Kenyan that I didn’t at the time:
Seeing Victor Wanyama get subbed out with a hamstring injury after playing terribly for two matches with athletic tape around his hamstring really helped me understand what happened to Spurs down the stretch.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) May 9, 2018
Kenya isn’t going to the World Cup this summer. Wanyama doesn’t have much to look forward to in the offseason besides not playing football for a while, so it’s interesting to note that he might have just played a couple of games through a possible injury because nobody else could.
So congratulations to Moussa Sissoko and Victor Wanyama. They were pretty bad on Wednesday! But they were bad in the best possible way: they stepped up in a disastrous injury situation, did a job, and helped get Spurs to the Champions League for a third consecutive season. That’s the role of depth, and they fulfilled it.