LONDON, United Kingdom, March 7 – Tottenham fans, of course, need very little excuse to find the trials of Arsenal amusing. But another source for their mirth might be that they have a player who could solve one or two of Arsenal’s many problems.
As Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin all take turns in being not quite good enough to effectively shield their defence, across town someone else is doing that perfectly for Tottenham.
Harry Kane got the headlines and the man-of-the-match award for adding to his increasingly cartoonish goal tally against Everton on Sunday, but behind him arguably the best player on the pitch was Kenyan international Victor Wanyama.
The midfielder, signed from Southampton in the summer for the relative bargain price of around £11million, started his 27th game of the season on Sunday, the only ever-present in the Tottenham squad, and has excelled in virtually all of them.
After a summer when nearly £50million was spent on Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko, Wanyama’s purchase represents a saving grace for the men in charge of transfers at Tottenham.
In truth his performance against Everton was, by his standards, nothing exceptional, but that’s the point. We’ve become so used to Wanyama being the granite centre of this Tottenham team that it’s almost barely notable when he plays well.
Such is the unfortunate lot of the defensive midfielder. It was as much as anything a compliment to Wanyama that Everton manager Ronald Koeman essentially played five central midfielders in order to, in his words, “get control of the midfield. It didn’t work.
Wanyama and Mousa Dembele are at the heart of the Premier League’s best midfield that doesn’t feature N’Golo Kante.
“Mousa Dembele and I just click together, long may that continue,” said Wanyama recently.
“I’ve known him for a while and we work well as a pair.”
They are of course both strong with the ball and in winning it back, both use possession prudently, but as much as anything the most important feature a midfielder of this type can have is a calmness, a cool authority that sets the tone for the rest of the team.
“He’s so strong, wins the ball back, he can play and is a calming influence on the team as well,” said Ledley King of Wanyama recently.
It’s this psychological impact that makes him such an important figure in this Spurs team. Not only does he provide a base for Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Kane to attack from, but his presence also gives their defenders confidence to attack too.
On a few occasions against Everton, Jan Vertonghen strode out from defence and went on powerful runs through midfield and into attack, nearly creating a couple of goals.
There would be no way he’d be able to do that was he not pretty sure his insurance policy, in the shape of Wanyama, was pretty secure.
Pochettino: “Harry Kane is fresh and scoring because he trains hard, he’s not fat like me!”
It was notable that, after Tottenham’s 4-0 thrashing of West Brom in January, when Kane scored a hat-trick, Pochettino made a point of praising Wanyama and Dembele.
“Always they provide very good balance to the team – in possession and out of possession,” said the Tottenham manager.
“They’re always in a very good possession without the ball but in position and knowing what they need to do. They were key in that dynamic.”
The admiration is mutual. Wanyama and Pochettino worked together at Southampton, and the only real surprise was that it took a couple of years for the midfielder to arrive at White Hart Lane.
“Pochettino is a really good person outside football,” Wanyama said in October.
“He’s like a father figure [to the players], always speaking with everyone and giving them advice.”
What’s particularly interesting about how well Wanyama has done is that he wasn’t necessarily purchased with the clear intention of upgrading the side.
Tottenham already had a perfectly good holding midfielder in Eric Dier, but Wanyama’s excellence means Dier has spent much of the season in defence.
Wanyama has in that sense been an unexpected bonus for Tottenham, and one that could be the best transfer of the season.