From Champions League final to Sampdoria loan: Why it went wrong for Harry Winks at Tottenham
or those in the room, one of the most memorable moments of the otherwise forgettable Nuno Espirito Santo era was Harry Winks’ impassioned post-match interview in Arnhem.
A Tottenham second string had just gone down 1-0 to Vitesse Arnhem in the Europa Conference League after Nuno left his XI for the upcoming derby against West Ham at home, and Winks used the opportunity to criticise the Portuguese’s two-tiered squad.
“We’re meant to be a team,” said a visibly frustrated Winks. “It’s meant to be competition. It’s meant to be competitive.”
The interview was a message on behalf of Nuno’s disenchanted squad but also felt like a lament for his own career, which had rapidly nosedived to that point.
Asked if he could explain his fall from one of England’s great hopes to Spurs’ B-team, Winks said: “No. No, I can’t. But listen, the circumstances are that I’m in this situation.”
Explaining the trajectory of Winks, who yesterday joined Serie A club Sampdoria on loan for the rest of the season, is not simple but Arnhem is good place to start.
Winks looked miserable, every bit like a player who had fallen out of love for the game and desperately needed a fresh start away from his boyhood club.
His display in the Arnhem had been ineffective and was characteristic of Winks’ final two seasons at Spurs, when he found himself trapped in a vicious cycle of under-achievement under managers who did not appear to value his skillset.
Jose Mourinho, Nuno and Antonio Conte have all felt like bad fits for Winks, favouring a more physical and less possession-based approach than Mauricio Pochettino, who gave the 26-year-old his chance at Spurs and started him in a Champions League Final.
Under Mourinho and Nuno, Winks was largely reduced to appearances in the Europa League, Conference League or the domestic cups, often in mishmash XIs of bit-part players.
He was unable to build rhythm and form without a run of appearances and yet undeserving of more game-time based on such underwhelming cameos.
As he lost confidence, his play became either too safe or too forced, and he often found it difficult to adjust to the pace of games when coming off the bench.
It was a far cry from Winks under Pochettino, who was capable of dictating the tempo of matches and unlocking opponents with quick, incisive passes and his ability to skip away from his man.
At his best, Winks went toe-to-toe with some of the best midfielders in the world, notably running the game at the Bernabeu in Spurs’ 1-1 draw in the Champions League group stage in October 2017 and playing in their 3-1 win at home two weeks later.
Not very long before he cut such a dejected figure in Arnhem, Winks was being touted as a potential solution to England’s historic midfield problem and he started the famous 3-2 win over Spain in October 2018, and was talked-up by Gareth Southgate on more than one occasion.
The zippy midfielder appeared to have the qualities that England lacked in Russia at the previous summer’s World Cup, notably an ability to keep possession for possession’s sake and, as Southgate pointed out, “connect defence to attack”.
Like many players from Pochettino’s great Spurs side — including Dele Alli — Winks never seemed to have the same spark after the Argentine’s sacking and has seemed like a player in need of a change of scene for over a year, despite brief renaissances under Ryan Mason and Conte.
He was also unfortunate with injuries, tearing his ankle ligaments on just his third Premier League start away at Burnley in April 2017.
Winks showed few ill-effects but admitted two years later that he was still playing through the pain barrier for Spurs.
He also underwent groin surgery five weeks before the 2019 Champions League Final, and it was a measure of Pochettino’s faith in Winks that he started against Liverpool regardless.
Sampdoria were not Winks’ first choice — he would have preferred to stay in the Premier League if possible — but the Italian club have confirmed the deal includes an option to buy, raising the possibility that Winks’ move to the Serie A could be more than simply a stop-gap.
The priority for the midfielder will be rediscover his rhythm under a manager who values what he can offer.