There was a moment inside the first five minutes of Spurs’ Champions League clash with Real Madrid on Tuesday night when Harry Winks looked somewhat out of his depth. Under pressure from two opposition midfielders, the 21-year-old was hassled out of position, holding a hand up in apology as he made a wayward pass. It didn’t bode well.
But that was the only point at which Winks looked overwhelmed by the challenge of facing the European champions on their own patch. Plenty young players would have wilted after such a difficult moment, but this one in particular used it to gather himself, going on to impress in the biggest match of his fledgling career to date.
Of course, Real Madrid largely controlled midfield matters, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric imposing themselves on a Spurs central unit lacking the physicality of Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele, along with the creativity and spark of Dele Alli, but what Christian Eriksen, Moussa Sissoko and Winks had to do, they did well. Winks was the standout of the trio.
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It was reminiscent of Jack Wilshere’s now fabled performance as a teenager against Barcelona all those years ago. The case could be made that the true greatness of Wilshere’s display has been warped over time, but nonetheless, it’s rare that an English teenager takes on the best side in Europe and impresses, holding their own. That’s exactly what Winks did at the Santiago Bernabeu, though.
He might not have played with the same verve as Wilshere did against Barcelona back in 2011, but Winks was just as effective against Real Madrid. Spurs were a different team with him over Wanyama or Dembele in the side, but that was to their inadvertent benefit. The composure Winks offered allowed Spurs to bring Harry Kane and Fernando Llorente into the game, giving the visitors an attacking threat they might not have otherwise carried.
Pitted directly against Modric, the player all Spurs central midfielders are held against, Winks fared well. That meant a lot to the player himself, with the 21-year-old open in his admiration of the Croatian. “I still admire him to this day – he’s a fantastic, world-class player,” said Winks after the 1-1 draw.
“To play against him was special. Him and Kroos, they are two world-class players, players I look up to, so when you go on the pitch with them it’s easy to get a little bit daunted by it. But I try to take all that away from it, treat it like any normal game and just go for them as I would any other player. Being on the pitch with them you realise their quality and just how good they are.”
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Winks must take confidence from his own performance, though, and how he looked comfortable on such a lofty stage, under such intense pressure. He must also learn lessons from Wilshere to avoid suffering the same fate as the Arsenal midfielder. Barcelona was, after all, the peak of Wilshere’s career to date, failing to live up to the hype generated off the back of it.
Nobody is talking about Winks’ display in the same way, and that will surely help him in a way the hype over Wilshere didn’t. But he mustn’t fall into the same pitfalls as the Arsenal man whose career has stagnated over the past five years or so. Winks still has plenty developing to do, but if his performance at the Bernabeu is to be taken as a microcosm of his character, he has the strength of will to improve even after set backs. Wilshere went from Barcelona to Bournemouth. Winks must seek to stay at the level of Real Madrid.