Recently the Stats Bomb account tweeted out an interesting radar comparing two midfielders who feature regularly for Champions League-caliber Premier League sides: Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum and Tottenham’s Harry Winks. Here’s the surprising result:
As you can see, the two have virtually identical attacking numbers with Wijnaldum doing more in terms of interceptions and drawing fouls while Winks has superior pressing numbers.
The comparison is an interesting one simply because it raises the question of what exactly Spurs have in Winks. Earlier in the season the answer seemed to be “a player whose ceiling may be ‘Jonjo Shelvey’,” which is to say an English playmaking midfielder who can be a defensive liability but is also good enough to be the creative hub for a bottom half Premier League side. Winksy’s passing numbers have been consistently good all year, after all: He’s tidy in possession, can progress the ball reasonably well, and has good range as a passer. But defensively he was a disaster earlier in the season which had many on the masthead, myself included, thinking his future would have to be away from Spurs.
But as Joel argued recently, Winks’s defensive numbers are improving. And if the numbers he’s posting now are more what we should expect his “normal” to be going forward, then it raises an interesting question. How should Spurs use him? The example of Wijnaldum is perhaps suggestive.
Teams with ambitions as high as those of Liverpool and Spurs will typically play around 60 games in a season plus many of their players will have international football, which means their players could well play as many as 70 matches in a single year. The facts of fatigue and injury mean that squads not only need to be rotated, but that tactics need to be adapted from match-to-match. What makes a player like Wijnaldum valuable to Liverpool is his versatility.
Though he has played exclusively in midfield over the last two seasons after initially playing more in the attacking three in his early days at the club, Wijnaldum’s flexibility allows the team to use him in multiple ways. This year he has often been half of the Reds’ double pivot in midfield as Jurgen Klopp has favored a 4-2-3-1 shape which allows Mohamed Salah to play up top with Xherdan Shaqiri joining Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in the attacking three. But in previous years Wijnaldum has been part of a midfield three, usually as one of the two runners, but sometimes as the deepest, most central player in the trio.
It is not hard to imagine a similar role for Winksy at Spurs, though much will depend on the other players in Spurs’ midfield. Should Eric Dier be fit and available, it’s interesting to imagine Winks partnering Dier in a double pivot. The fear with that duo is that neither player may be effective enough at breaking an opposition press for the midfield to work. The reason Dier and Mousa Dembele worked so well for so long is because Dembele’s press breaking was unparalleled in world football and that allowed Dier to simply be a passing metronome and midfield sweeper. Winks is not on Dembele’s level at breaking a press (no one is, really) so a Dier-Winks pivot would likely struggle against teams that look to aggressively press Spurs high up the pitch. However, against a team that sits deeper and forces Spurs to break them down, Winks’s passing range could be quite useful.
In short, Winks does enough defensively and is good enough in the attack, that it is very easy to imagine a wide variety of scenarios where he would be an asset on-field. Spurs could follow the lead of Liverpool and play a more aggressive double pivot behind an attacking four. Against many bottom-half Premier League sides, that is probably an effective approach, particularly if the high press does its job and eases the defensive workload on the midfield two.
Similarly, in those matches against weaker opposition one can also imagine Winks sitting deepest in midfield, as he often has this season, with two runners ahead of him. You would generally want a more active defender at the base of midfield, but in matches where the squad needs rotated and the opposition isn’t likely to create much, Winks would likely be fine as a deep holder, particularly in terms of retaining possession and grinding opponents down slowly, as Spurs have done a lot of this season.
And here’s the key thing to keep in mind: Consider the midfields of Tottenham’s top six rivals. Who are the players comparable to Winks—versatile midfield types who can give you, at minimum, non-disastrous minutes in several different roles? Their ceiling is also high enough that they can sometimes turn in man-of-the-match caliber performances. We’re talking about players like Wijnaldum, Ander Herrera, Granit Xhaka, Ilkay Gundogan, etc. With the exception of Gundogan, each of those players cost their clubs over £30m. Gundogan came for £20m, but with the caveat that his injury history was such that it was far from certain he would ever play major minutes for Manchester City. Notably, none of them are home-grown either.
When you put it this way, you can see Winksy’s value to Tottenham: He’s a cromulent squad midfielder that the club acquired from its own academy and who is home-grown. Given Tottenham’s financial limitations, identifying players who can be acquired at low cost and can contribute solid minutes to the team is essential to the club’s ambitions. Winks will not be a Dembele replacement or, in the likely event that he leaves this summer, a Christian Eriksen replacement. The club still need to acquire 2-3 midfield and attacking players—ideally a press breaking midfielder, a midfield tweener, and a winger/second striker hybrid. But faulting Winks for not being Dembele or Eriksen misses the point of what he is: He’s a home-grown, free midfielder who can play significant minutes for a team of Tottenham’s stature. And that’s a much bigger deal than many people might realize.