Harry Winks’ Dembele-esque skillset explains his value to England
Being English and receiving one-to-one tuition from Mauricio Pochettino is virtually a guarantee of a senior international call-up these days with Harry Winks the latest player to benefit from the Argentine’s expertise.
Should Winks debut for England against either Slovenia or Lithuania, it will mean that 14 of England’s last 29 debutants have been coached by Pochettino before their first call-up. Winks’ teammate Kieran Trippier became the latest to do so against France in June.
The 21-year-old midfielder has featured for England at all age levels from U17 upwards, has captained his country at youth level and was set to start for the U21s in their games against Scotland and Andorra before being parachuted into Gareth Southgate’s senior squad.
Reaction to Winks’ call-up has been somewhat sceptical with plenty of people quick to point out Winks’ lack of regular first-team football with his club but realistically there were few other viable candidates for Southgate to call upon.
Now that Winks is in the England squad what attributes does he bring that Southgate’s other midfield players lack and how does he compare to some of the players who missed out?
When Winks made his breakthrough into the Spurs squad last year it quickly became apparent that he was extremely accomplished with the ball at his feet by rarely misplacing a pass.
While initially, Winks naturally took the safe option with his passing, a goal against West Ham on his first Premier League start (fifth top-flight game overall) resulted in him playing with more confidence and freedom.
In his debut Premier League season, Winks achieved a pass accuracy rate of 91% – only bettered in the Spurs squad by Mousa Dembele – with just under two-thirds (57.1%) of his total passes going forward to a teammate in an advanced position on the pitch.
Winks’ propensity to recycle the ball and retain possession comfortably was evident during Spurs’ Champions League game against CSKA Moscow at Wembley last December, when he completed 107/112 (96%) attempted passes which was the sixth-highest total of any player in that gameweek.
He has been similarly resourceful on the ball this season, averaging an 87% pass accuracy rate across five appearances in the Premier League which incidentally is superior to his competitors in the England squad, Jordan Henderson (75%) and Jake Livermore (79%) and only fractionally worse than his clubmate Eric Dier (88%).
A potential criticism levelled at Winks is that he isn’t creative enough with only nine chances created (and one solitary assist) to show from his 26 Premier League appearances to date.
However, quite simply, creating chances is not his job in the Spurs side, with Christian Eriksen, the full-backs and to an extent, Dele Alli, tasked with supplying chances for Harry Kane to finish off. Instead, Winks’ role is to keep the ball moving quickly and accurately around the pitch and he does that extremely well.
It is important to note that Winks isn’t solely a pass-master as over the past few months he has shown an increased urgency to carry the ball forward himself, using his good close control, deceptive burst of pace and low centre of gravity to evade opponents and move his team up the pitch.
This was most recently demonstrated during Spurs’ 3-0 win over APOEL in the Champions League, when Winks received the ball in his own half, turned out of trouble and dribbled past two men to spark a counter-attack, only to be hauled to the floor before he was able to release a pass.
With question marks lingering over how long Mousa Dembele can continue playing at such a high level given he is now in his 30s and succumbing more frequently to injury, it appears as though Winks is being primed to take over his role long-term. Winks clearly holds his teammate in high regard, saying of his teammate last season: “[Dembele’s] different class with his balance, his strength and his technique – he’s one of the best I’ve ever played with in my life.”
England have been crying out for a box-to-box midfield player for some time, which is why Roy Hodgson was so desperate to include Jack Wilshere in his Euro 2016 squad at the expense of Danny Drinkwater, despite the fact the Arsenal midfielder had featured for just 146 minutes in the Premier League that season.
Despite growing up supporting different teams in North London, there are plenty of similarities to Winks and Wilshere’s style of play in midfield, yet the Spurs man has benefited from more top-level football since the start of last season.
Southgate’s decision to call-up Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah after a handful of promising displays for them at the start of the season showed that he wants to add more dynamism to his England midfield. But with Chalobah injured and a revitalised (albeit playing at left back) Fabian Delph withdrawing from the squad, there weren’t too many box-to-box options for Southgate to call upon.
Some fans have championed Jonjo Shelvey’s cause but he isn’t that kind of player and is used in a similar deep-lying playmaker role to Henderson and Dier. Others have called for Wilshere off the back of a couple of promising Europa League displays but his failure to secure any minutes in the Premier League is perhaps why he has been left out. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a player utilised heavily by Southgate at youth level could also have been in contention despite Crystal Palace’s dire start to the season.
Perhaps of all the central midfield players that Southgate might have been tempted to select, Everton’s Tom Davies had as big a claim as any, considering he has been a key player for his side since breaking into the first-team last season.
While not as accurate in his passing, Davies has shown more in an attacking sense than Winks thus far but on this occasion, Southgate might have gone for the Spurs man giving he is two years older and has slightly more top-level experience.
Winks’ call-up might seem premature given he has yet to fully establish himself as a key component of the Tottenham side, but plenty of England’s key players such as Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli were also integrated into the squad ahead of schedule due to a lack of alternatives.
England’s dearth of central midfield options right now means that Southgate has to take chances on relatively unproven players and while Winks might not have played much football this season after overcoming an ankle injury, his skill-set offers England something different in midfield.