A new report in The Athletic (paywall) reveals some of the inner workings between Mourinho and his less star-powered players. According to the author, Harry Winks feels that he is out of favor with the manager and doesn’t know why, and that uncertainty is beginning to affect his on-field performance as he tries to garner favor while also guessing at where he fits into the tactical system. This was a factor in his middling performance against Middlesbrough yesterday, which saw him tweak his recurring ankle injury and leave the Spurs back line under pressure on several occasions. The Athletic understands that, though Winks remains a supporter of the club, he wants regular first-team football and would be willing to leave to get it.
This all seems very plausible: it’s certainly true that what may once have appeared a trajectory toward stardom for Winks has lately begun to flatten off, and his difficult-to-classify skillset requires a specific role on the field that gives him the time and space to execute his vision for the ball. He’s always been in limbo to some extent, playing most comfortably in a truly central midfield position, free from the pressures of defending and able to join and disengage the attack when need be. But at the right time, under the right system, against the right opponent, there’s no doubt that Winks brings something to the table.
The article seems to be offering a reasonable counterpoint: right now under Mourinho’s system may not be the time or place for him. If true, that would be a shame for a player who fans love and who loves the club, but not necessarily an affront to good football. After all, Tanguy Ndombele offers a similar passing repertoire with better physical ball-retention skills, and even Eric Dier, who began as a defender, has a more clearly defined role to play in the pivot. Spurs are a team with plenty of competition for central midfield spots, and it’s natural that somebody will make way. It would be no insult to Winks if he were the person to do so.
More concerning is the fact that—according to The Athletic—Winks feels “left in the dark” as to why he isn’t seeing more starts. The dressing room has certainly been ill at ease all year, with rumors of factions pro- and against Pochettino, and the arrival of a manager known for his testy relationships to his own players was always going to have a potentially negative impact on that situation. To his credit, Mourinho did seem to be attempting to reform his reputation somewhat in his first weeks at the club. Since then, though, he has made repeated comments about Tanguy Ndombele’s injury concerns that have, at times, verged on public criticism of one of Tottenham’s best players. If he is also withholding information from Winks and players like him, that could indicate a deeper information problem that certainly seems plausible given Spurs’ often disjointed on-field performances, and might hint at a desire to rebuild the squad more drastically. All things considered, not a shocking report, but not a welcome one, either.