Moussa Sissoko, Tottenham’s anarcho-syndicalist, many-limbed enigma, weaves Chelsea into his dizzying vortex of chaos

On a night of lawless abandon at Wembley, nothing encapsulated Spurs’ dizzying supremacy quite like the sight of Sissoko running the midfield

Jonathan Liew
Wembley Stadium
Saturday 24 November 2018 20:42
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Mauricio Pochettino praises his team after Tottenham's 3-0 win over Chelsea

Great central midfielders often take on the personae of artists. Xavi, obviously enough, was Monet: all short, perfect dapples, not a stroke wasted. Zinedine Zidane was Caravaggio: the piercing light and the devastating dark, the infinite poise and the murderous desire. Moussa Sissoko, on the other hand, is more like one of those video installation artists who films himself sitting naked in a chair in a disused warehouse, before getting up, very deliberately picking up a sledgehammer, and violently demolishing everything in sight, right down to the four walls around him, and then pressing himself tight up against the camera, a terrifying smile on his face, and whispering: “Free the animals.”

On a night of lawless abandon at Wembley Stadium, nothing encapsulated Tottenham's dizzying supremacy quite like the sight of Sissoko running the midfield like a one-man anarcho-syndicalist cell. The headlines belonged to Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane, David Luiz and Jorginho. But in a way it was Sissoko who was the key to this game, its C4, its unreliable narrator, the enigmatic architect of Chelsea’s chaos.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to get a handle on Sissoko, I think, is that he always looks so utterly startled to have the ball at his feet. Every time he gets it, he stares at it for a moment, as if this were a turn of events he had scarcely bargained for. “Why did none of you warn me?” you can see him beseeching his team-mates, while he gamely grapples with this mysterious white orb bobbling off one of his many legs.

That’s the other thing about Sissoko: the legs. You’d swear he has more than two of them. Watch Sissoko tackle an opponent – as he did on several occasions here – and you will be treated to a curious optical illusion by which he appears to attack the ball from both sides at once. There was one moment late in the first half when Mateo Kovacic was charging up the left wing and Sissoko – despite giving away a good 10 yards on him – hunted him down, swung in several of his legs and won the ball so comprehensively that you wouldn’t be surprised if Kovacic hired an entire team of investigators to discover what happened to it.

We’re doing Sissoko a slight disservice here. Once he gets the ball under control, he can be surprisingly fleet of foot, as he proved when he sent Willian up the Jubilee Line to Stanmore in the build-up to Tottenham’s second goal. But by and large, when you’re surrounded by a team of highly skilled technical players, you’re always going to stand out when your first touch is really just a warm-up act for your second and third touches.

Moussa Sissoko worked tirelessly in midfield

This, perhaps, is why Sissoko has spent so much of his time at Tottenham looking so entirely ill-suited to it. Signed in the dying hours of the 2016 transfer window for £30 million, back in the days when that was a lot of money, Sissoko always carried the whiff of a panic purchase, an impression he failed to dispel over the two subsequent seasons. He was usually deployed on the right wing, often as a hopeful substitute. And yet in an age when so many teams direct their press towards the flanks, the modern winger, working with little space, often needs to be the most precise player on the pitch.

Sissoko, bless his socks, is not precise. But he offers different qualities, qualities Tottenham have distinctly lacked of late: pace, awkwardness, forward thrust. There’s an urgency to Sissoko, both with and without the ball, that makes him the ideal foil for a team that occasionally gets lost in their own noodlings. He steams in, wins the ball, moves it on. And so at some point, Mauricio Pochettino realised the best way to use him: not on the flank where he would inevitably get squeezed out, but in the centre, where opposition teams never quite know where the ball is going next, because often neither does Sissoko. The injury to Mousa Dembele has been particularly timely in this respect: Dembele is the sort of player you bring in when you want to control a game. Sissoko is the sort of player you bring in when you want to control an opposition.

This, of course, is the genius of Pochettino. “If it’s in you, I’ll find it,” David Brent memorably promised in The Office. Pochettino, remarkably, goes further: even if it’s not in you, somehow he’ll still find it. And though Sissoko naturally deserves plenty of credit himself, the resurrection of his career is one that could not have occurred without Pochettino’s relentless reinforcement, his exhaustive search for solutions, his zealous cultivation of an environment in which even the fringe players, the misfits, the out-of-form and the out-on-loan, can feel the love and ultimately flourish.

Was this all part of the plan? Could this be the start of something big? As ever with Sissoko, nobody knows. Sometimes, you think you know. You may even have made up your mind about him at one point. But in a way, this was one of those nights that offered not reason but riddles, not conclusions but conundrums. A night to simply sit back, relax and be utterly baffled.

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