When Antonio Conte took over at Tottenham, the club’s fans expected the Italian to discard any passengers in the squad. The last few years have been turbulent for the club and they have desperately needed to rebuild since the peak of reaching the Champions League final in 2019 and ship some deadwood on to pastures new.
To their credit, Spurs did at least get Moussa Sissoko, Joe Hart and Danny Rose off the books in the summer, with Sissoko and Rose signing for Watford, and Hart moving north to Celtic. But those exits felt like the start of a long-term project rather than a quick fix. When Conte arrived at the club last month, Matt Doherty, Dele Alli and Harry Winks must have wondered if their futures lay elsewhere.
That, though, was before Tottenham played Liverpool on Sunday evening. The 2-2 draw was the team’s first game in two weeks after a Covid outbreak in the squad and Conte went into the game without his first-choice central midfield pairing of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp. The Italian tinkered with his favoured system, with Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min leading the charge and Tanguy Ndombele joining Dele and Winks in the middle of the park.
That trio of midfielders could all leave the club next month, but their performances against Liverpool will give Conte plenty of food for thought. Ndombele provided a superb assist for Harry Kane’s opener, and Dele could have had a goal and an assist to his name, yet it was Winks who Conte singled out for praise after the game.
“A good performance, but I didn’t have doubts about this,” said Conte after the game. “Harry Winks is working very hard. He impressed me in training sessions for his commitment, his will, his desire. I think he’s a really good player.” Considering it was just Winks’ third start in the league this season, he put in a fine all-action display. Granted, Liverpool had their fair share of issues in midfield, with Thiago, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson all ruled out, yet Winks deserved ample praise.
Winks had been frozen out by Nuno Espírito Santo earlier in the season. He only started one league game under Nuno and tended to be used when the manager rotated for the Europa Conference League. Frustrated by his lack of opportunities, the 25-year-old admitted in October that he was considering his future. “I love Tottenham, but I want to play regular football,” said Winks. “The only way to play your best football and get momentum is when you play regularly. I’m giving my all for the club. They stuck by me, and I want to play for Tottenham, but it is difficult when you get matches here and there, confidence is low and you don’t get that run of games.” When asked about moving on in the January window, he said: “I’ve got a lot of games left to try and fight for the club. There’s still two months and it’s about knuckling down, working as hard as I can and having no regrets.”
Winks was an unused substitute in Conte’s first league game – a goalless draw at Everton – and it looked as if a move may be best for him and the club. But he started in the 2-1 win against Leeds, came off the bench in the 2-0 win over Brentford and his display against Liverpool on Sunday was his best for Tottenham in some time. It could prove to be a turning point in his career.
A major critique of Winks has been his reluctance to get the ball forward. He has often preferred to play a safer, sideways pass. But that was not the case against Liverpool at the weekend. No Spurs player made more forward passes than Winks (24). Considering that the plan was to soak up the pressure from Liverpool and then hit them on the counterattack, Spurs needed a player to get the ball upfield quickly and Winks played the role superbly. His pass success rate of 79.4% may look lower than expected, but Spurs benefitted from his decision to take risks with the ball. It was Winks’ pass that resulted in Son’s second-half equaliser.
He was also involved in Spurs’ first goal, winning the ball back from Naby Keïta and starting the move that led to Harry Kane opening the scoring. Winks showcased his defensive work throughout the game, making more interceptions (four) than any other player on the field. In fact, he had more touches, made more passes, made more interceptions and blocks than any of his teammates, while also covering more distance.
When Conte won the Serie A title with Inter last season, he had Marcelo Brozovic at the heart of his midfield. Could Winks be the equivalent for Spurs? The Croat was often deployed as the deepest lying central midfielder for Inter and he was integral in the club winning their first league title for 11 years. With Simone Inzaghi now in charge, Brozovic is again playing a similar role and it’s no coincidence that Inter will spend Christmas at the top of the Serie A table given his impact both in and out of possession.
Conte may see Winks as a player who could do a similar job. It is early days, of course, and Winks will have to maintain this form to convince his manager. But Sunday was a good start. Conte has promised to fully evaluate every player before deciding whether or not to move them on in January. Winks gave him plenty to ponder with a standout display against one of Europe’s heavyweights.