In recent weeks, Harry Winks has been quietly turning in very positive performances in big matches where his contribution has been overshadowed by the individual brilliance of others.
First, the 22-year-old held his own in a midfield battle with the likes of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic as Spurs fell to defeat against Barcelona in the Champions League. On that occasion, everyone was playing second fiddle to the sheer brilliance of Lionel Messi. There is, of course, no shame in failing to stand out whilst the Argentine genius is in such good form.
Second, in England’s historic Nations League triumph over Spain, so much attention was justly paid to the match-winning combination of England’s front three – Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane – that Winks’ own eye-catching display fell somewhat by the wayside.
A succession of injuries last season led to Winks missing plenty of football at club level and ultimately the midfielder had to undergo surgery that meant he couldn’t enjoy a proper pre-season ahead of the new campaign either. With that in mind, Winks has done well to merely force his way back in Mauricio Pochettino’s first XI plans, never mind the national team set up.
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Yet, there is a very good reason why Winks ought to be fast-tracked back into the England picture, and evidence for that was given in his aforementioned performances against Spain and Barcelona.
Against two high-quality opponents, Winks demonstrated that he possesses the qualities to fearlessly go toe-to-toe with them and provide his side with a driving force in the middle of the park. A look at the stats highlights just how impressive he was on these occasions.
Against Barcelona, Winks recorded a pass completion rating 94.6%, and made 55 successful passes in total including four accurate long balls and one key pass. The Spurs man also chipped in with his defensive dues, making two tackles and one interception.
On the international stage, Winks was even more impressive. An 85.7% pass accuracy rating saw him rank once again amongst the most assured and reliable distributors on the pitch.
This time, Winks was far more aggressive on the ball too, completing three dribbles. He was able to take on his opponents with such regularity as he was robust in possession. The Spanish could only dispossess Winks once in the match, whereas he was dispossessed on five occasions against Barcelona.
The youngster is by no means the complete midfielder, and there are certainly flaws in his game. His strengths, though, are in areas that England are otherwise lacking. His ability to pass or run with the ball between the lines is reminiscent of Jack Wilshere at his best (it is unlikely now that the West Ham man will ever again reach those heights he hit in his early Arsenal career).
Southgate’s most trusted central midfield options – Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier – whilst they have their merits, both have a propensity for playing lots of neat and tidy sideways passes that lack penetration and invention. At his best, Winks can be the incisive, aggressive deep-lying playmaker that England need.
England recently made the mistake of for too long ignoring the perfect midfielder for their cause in favour of shoe-horning in more experienced options or higher profile stars. In that instance, Michael Carrick missed his chance to transform the Three Lions’ midfield contingent into something altogether more functional and cohesive.
Given time, patience and the correct guidance, Winks could also help to evolve the England midfield into a more efficient and balanced unit. He must be afforded that chance, and the mistakes made with Carrick’s international career ought not to be repeated.