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No pain, no gain for Harry Winks as Mauricio Pochettino looks to get the best out of Tottenham youngster

After undergoing ankle surgery in May, opportunities for Winks have been few and far in between. But that could be about to change

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Friday 14 September 2018 14:01 BST
Tottenham 2018/19 Premier League profile

Tottenham had been second-best all afternoon, swarmed by Watford’s intense energy, and there were only four minutes left at Vicarage Road when Mauricio Pochettino finally fixed it. Harry Winks came on for Mousa Dembele and finally Spurs had some zip and buzz back in their own midfield. Winks scampered around, tried to carry the ball forward, but it was too little, too late.

It was Winks’ third appearance from the bench this season but they have all been brief. He has not started a game since Spurs rolled over Rochdale in the FA Cup on 28 February. He has not started in the Premier League since December last year.

But all that could be about to change, if not on Saturday then soon after.

Winks is currently feeling better than he has done since first damaging his ankle ligaments with an awkward fall in April 2017. He had ankle surgery in May 2018 but has been recovering for more than three months, returning to training in mid-August. As Pochettino explained at his press conference on Thursday afternoon, now that he understands he has to manage pain in his ankle, he is closer to overcoming it.

“He needs to understand and accept that he needs to play with a little bit of pain,” Pochettino said. “It is hard to accept as a young player. You want to feel nothing and feel free.”

For Pochettino, football is about sacrifice and suffering. If Winks can embrace that too, he can get back to his best. “If you ask all the players today, it is impossible to play without pain in some point of your body,” Pochettino explained. “You use your body for work. You push your body from a very young age. It is not a healthy sport and you always try to push your body and touch and cross the limits sometimes. For him, it was new. He had a serious operation last summer; that will always be there. The psychology is that you have suffered, and are not free. You need to learn to live with this situation, and now he is better and stronger in his mentality.”

So Pochettino is confident that Winks is now ready to “step up” again, and there is no question that Tottenham need him. Because they are struggling in midfield. They did not sign anyone in the summer, having tried to sell Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko but not finding any buyers. Dembele was considering leaving Tottenham for China and although he stayed, he is clearly not the player he once was. Eric Dier is not on top of his own game either, and Dele Alli is out of Saturday and a doubt for Inter Milan on Tuesday with a hamstring injury picked up on England duty.

That means that Christian Eriksen is the only safe bet, but even he cannot be expected to do everything by himself. Spurs need two more players for that midfield three, and especially a player who keeps the ball, moves it forward quickly, allowing Eriksen to play in between the lines rather than having to come too deep to see the ball. That is why they need Winks.

Eriksen is currently Tottenham's only safe bet in the centre of the park (Getty)

Discussing how Winks can help Tottenham tick, Pochettino was torn between keeping the 22-year-old’s feet on the ground and comparing him to the greatest midfielders of their generation - so he ended up doing both.

“Harry has all the profile to be a perfect midfielder,” Pochettino said. “I don’t want to talk too much and praise him because if so, his head could [grow]. His perception will be ‘wow’, and the reality is you still need to prove it. The characteristics are perfect to play football. When we talk about midfielders, because you like to use Spanish midfielders like Xavi and Andres Iniesta, he is like this type of player, this capacity. But please, he needs to take my words in a positive way.”

High praise, especially for a youngster who has still only started 12 Premier League games in his career. But anyone who saw his famous performance when Spurs went to Real Madrid last October, or his England debut the following month, will know that Winks offers something different. This is not a country that produces many ball-playing midfielders, as England’s performances in Russia, or against Spain and Switzerland this month, showed very clearly. If Winks gets back into the rhythm of playing for Spurs, he will re-enter Gareth Southgate’s plans too.

Winks' last start for Tottenham came in the FA Cup in February of this year (AFP/Getty Images)

But all that is still in the distance. “He needs a lot of work”, Pochettino said. “He has the possibility and the potential, of course. But now it is up to him and we go again. Mentality. In his mind, he is capable to learn about suffering. There is never enough training. Always try to be better. Football is his focus, not the business around football. Maybe [if he learns this], he will arrive to play in a very good level, and be one of the best midfielders in England. It is not my advice. It is only how I describe the reality. If he wants to take it, take it.”

Winks will get his chance, if not tomorrow or in Milan on Tuesday then soon enough. He is ready to take it and give his team that control and fluency in the middle they have so desperately missed.

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