Real Madrid need 40 Winks as Tottenham come of age
Spurs’ young English cohort sweep European champions aside
Shortly before half-time on a thrilling, boisterous European night, there was a moment of rare comedy at Wembley. Tackling back in his own half, Harry Winks let an arm trail lightly across Casemiro’s shoulder, only for the Brazilian to reel back, stunned, tumbling over backwards desperately. Casemiro didn’t want the ball. He wanted a break. He wanted his free-kick.
Ten minutes into the second half something similar happened. As Marcelo rumbled upfield Dele Alli sprinted 40 metres in an arc to harry him and eventually concede another foul as Marcelo crumpled gratefully. Marcelo didn’t really want the ball, either.
Alli bellowed at the fourth official, then at his manager. A minute later, still running on anger, he did something both wicked and beautiful to Casemiro just outside the Real Madrid box. Picking up a loose ball Alli slalomed forward, put Casemiro on his backside again with a lovely playground feint, then drove a shot into the back off the net via a deflection off Sergio Ramos.
Spurs were 2-0 up. Alli had his second goal. The stadium gurgled and bellowed, consumed by the most engrossing night of elite-level football involving a bunch of Englishmen this place has seen since its re-inception as modern Wembley.
Even before the kick-off there was something beautiful about the prospect of five young English players starting against Madrid; the oldest of whom Kieran Trippier, has worked his way to this stage from the Championship. This was a Champions League night that showed the best of English football, the state of the art, and surely the armature for any serious attempt at sending a workable young team to the World Cup in Russia next year.
Make no mistake: Madrid weren’t just beaten 3-1 here, they were given a chasing, flustered at times by the energy and craft of their young opponents. Wembley was in an unusually febrile mood as Karim Benzema kicked off, and Spurs drove hard at Madrid from the start, Alli, Winks and Eric Dier playing like three men roped together in a storm, holding a high midfield line and playing right in the faces of their illustrious opponents.
Winks in particular was brilliantly assertive in that first half. The purring over his best moments has tended to centre on his “calmness”, the ability to appear unfazed by being asked to pass and receive a football, a level of praise for a basic elite skill that tells you all you need to know about recent English midfields.
Here he was up against a midfield powerhouse, arguably the top three in the world in their roles: Casemiro, king of suffocation; Toni Kroos, a wonderful passer; and Luka Modric a footballer who looks like he was born on the half-turn, able to twist and turn and pause and do pretty much anything he wants with the ball.
In the back row of the press seats Spanish radio called the game with its usual pitch of enthusiasm, spitting out the names. Winks. Kane. Winks. There were a lot of Winkses. And there is so much to like about a player who makes the game feel this calm and orderly. Best of all Winks will often just stop and watch, reading where the ball might go next. Every team need a player like this. Given the current level of competition it seems self-evident Winks should get another chance to start in central midfield for England.
Tottenham were strangling Kroos into mistakes, pushing Modric right to the fringes. The opening goal was flickering just out of sight. When it came it was via the same triangular move Spurs had already trialled three times. Winks played a lovely floated pass from the centre out to Trippier. His volleyed cross skimmed across the six yard box and as Alli stretched to get there ahead of Nacho Wembley erupted, roaring the ball over the line ahead of time.
It was an excellent moment for Alli. At 21 he has already been talked up relentlessly as a player who belongs at this level, so convincing is his combination of quick feet, vision, cutting edge and athleticism. But before this he had done very little of note in the competition, scoring just the one goal last season in a dead rubber at the end of the group. This, though, was something else, a performance in the second half of real driving authority against the European champions. Daniel Levy might want to take the phone off the hook for the next year or so.
It brought a flurry of driving attacks in response. Madrid stretched the flanks, Achraf Hakimi galloping up and down the right like a man performing his own ceaseless bleep test, albeit one only vaguely related to the game of football going on around him. Spurs held firm and scored another brilliantly worked goal on the break though Christian Eriksen, who had a wonderful game. Cristiano Ronaldo eventually poked in a consolation, reward for some occasionally chaotic pressure.
But by the end Tottenham were cruising again, sucking the sweetness out of the best night in this competition for an English team since Chelsea won it five years ago. Nothing was decided, no medals handed out, no trophies hoisted. But football is a game of moments too, of hard-won breakthroughs, of team-building in the heat of competition; and Spurs and their English core had a night to cherish.