Why Harry Winks is such a source of pride for Mauricio Pochettino
Harry Winks catches you unaware. A generic young player who looks like every other to have graduated to a Premier League pitch, but whose boldness seizes your attention; Winks shimmers in a way which you don't quite expect.
Another one of his expressive performances lay at the heart of Tottenham's 4-0 win in the recent FA Cup tie at Fulham. The charm of his passing was irresistible, particularly the shallow diagonal he hit in the build-up to Harry Kane's second goal. It was striking but familiar: he has played like that from his first minutes, with a determination to influence matches rather than to just take part in them.
Clearly he is still player with certain vulnerabilities and it will take many more appearances for the gaps in his game to close, but there are few academy graduates who have so quickly stirred the collective enthusiasm.
There are few academy graduates who have so quickly stirred the collective enthusiasm
His career will depend partly on factors which are yet to be determined. While it's naturally important that Mauricio Pochettino and his technical staff continue to oversee his development and that players with whom he enjoys a natural chemistry remain at the club, Winks's trajectory will also be determined by his conditioning, his attitude towards his rising stock, and how well he's insulated from inevitable celebrity.
That's the case with every player who rises to a prominent level and he will be no different.
But caveats aside, there's a glow to Winks which few embryonic players have. It's an elusive quality and hard to properly define, but it's a shared characteristic of those who seem destined for the top of the sport. Call it a bravery, a boldness, or even a fearless determination – you know it when you see it. A young footballer is just a bundle of unrefined attributes, but in his case those parts are bound tightly. There's something great here, even it's not yet certain what that something is.
Winks is highly expressive. That tag may be applied to any midfielder who can pass, but he wears it well: he looks so comfortable with the ball at his feet, so uninhibited when he uses it. When some young players take their first senior steps, they quiver with paralysed caution. Evidently aware of how rare Premier League opportunities can be, they hide on the pitch and run from situations which could draw mistakes.
Winks looks so comfortable with the ball at his feet, so uninhibited when he uses it. When some young players take their first senior steps, they quiver with paralysed caution
That manifests in an aversion to responsibility: playing a pass sideways and safe instead of between the lines, for instance, or laying off a shooting chance. The aim is not to stand out or give the impression of not belonging. Over time that changes, but Winks is remarkable for having skipped that stage. His first start for Tottenham is remembered now for his goal against West Ham and his infectious celebration immediately afterwards. Rightly so, but perhaps also at the cost of his contribution in that game's final 10 minutes.
Spurs had played badly and produced a largely anaemic attacking performance, but with the pressure at its highest and the points on the line it was Winks driving the team forward. Other players made more critical passes in those manic seconds and Heung Son-min's neat turn may have ultimately led to the winning penalty, but Winks's lack of inhibition were at the heart of both goals.
He took opponents on, he found team-mates in space, and he helped to create the conditions for the comeback. The point isn't to retrospectively anoint him as the match-winner, rather to highlight the lack of any discernible fear.
Calm and composed
Two months later, he would be introduced as a substitute in similarly trying conditions at the Etihad Stadium. Tottenham had been brutalised by Manchester City during a game in which they were never in control. The midfield was porous, the defence – which suffered through three different configurations – looked panicked and unreliable. Winks was not the hero of the hour, but his 30 minutes on the pitch brought a degree of calm.
Again, the aim is not to over-celebrate his contribution, but to highlight the effect he was able to have on the game. And, importantly, to note the difference between what he was able to give and what the expected performance of someone with similar experience might have been.
At the very highest level, what typically seems to separate the various prospects – all of whom are presumably highly talented – is the durability of their attributes
Like all footballers, Winks has individual talents. Technically, he is a pure ball-striker with a great sense of weight and distance to his distribution and, importantly, he appears to process the game around him very quickly; he recognises space and opportunity before an opponent has a chance to eliminate. The multiplier in that equation, however, is self-belief and a conviction which amplifies his expression. It's the 'x' in the equation.
What typically seems to separate prospects at the top of the game, all of whom are highly talented, is the durability of their attributes and whether or not they can survive in competitive situations. Professional experience isn't needed to know that, either, because even amateurs will have played with training ground stars who shrink in matches. Winks isn't one of those, and perhaps his relationship with his manager buttresses that continuity?
In a late January interview with the Guardian's Dave Hytner, Winks recalled his first meeting with Pochettino. "I signed my first professional contract in the summer of 2014, which was when the manager came to the club," said the midfielder. "As I was signing, just next to his office, he walked in, shook my hand and said – I don’t know if he was being truthful or not – 'I’ve seen your videos and I told John McDermott to sign you up straight away'."
It sounds like a throwaway anecdote, but when tallied with the obvious closeness between the two, it helps to explain Winks's confidence. Just as it is in the non-sporting world, having the faith of a superior is critically important. It's as empowering as the reverse destructive. While most modern players work furiously to prove themselves, knowing that the onus is on them to convince a youth or head coach of their worth, Winks was made aware of Pochettino's faith from their first meeting.
The manager walked in, shook my hand and said – I don’t know if he was being truthful or not – ‘I’ve seen your videos and I told John McDermott to sign you up straight away'
That doesn't necessarily make him a better player, but probably a freer one. When he opens his body and carves a pass across the pitch, he does so without the fear which comes from believing that one mistake could redefine his future.
He did admit to being unsure as to whether the Argentine was being entirely sincere, but to be paid that kind of attention by an incoming manager must have been emboldening. So, while his playing personality is partly definied by his character, it doesn't seem tenuous to suggest that the lack of inhibition Winks exhibits is a by-product of that relationship.
Similarly, while it's Pochettino's established policy not to loan out the most promising players from the club's academy, there's something particularly descriptive in his refusal to let go of Winks. Like the parent who wants their gifted child home schooled, this is a player with whom no chances are to be taken.
It's a descriptive faith, because promise alone wouldn't be enough to win Pochettino's heart. His teams either function entirely as a unit or not at all, so his willingness to introduce Winks at critical moments have been indicative of the youngster's tactical comprehension. Modern Tottenham are not an ad hoc side – they play to relatively strict instruction. Meaning, of course, that any player introduced into the starting XI or from the substitutes' bench needs to maintain that integrity. Especially so in midfield, where balance is delicate.
To Winks's great credit, rarely have his naiveties been exposed and, tellingly, he has been able to bring his manager's desired changes into almost every situation he's faced. That's rare. Exposing young players to the Premier League is often done with the acknowledgement that in the short-term, older, more experienced options could perform to a higher standard.
But there's no opportunity cost here. Even at this primative stage of his career, Winks offers a credible variation to some highly experienced, extremely capable options.
Players are not straight arrows and development curves are rarely smooth, but Winks appears to be under the perfect incubating heat at Tottenham. With each passing game the gap between his theoretical and actual worth narrows and, as and when those two points meet, Spurs should have something very special indeed.
Pochettino is typically non-committal in his press conferences and generally offers as little to the media as he can get away with, but ask him about Harry Winks and watch him beam with pride. When he's finished polishing this diamond, it should really shine.