Harry Winks progress highlights Tottenham evolution under Pochettino
It says everything about Harry Winks' week that he is likely to be rested for Tottenham's Carabao Cup match against West Ham on Wednesday. A few months ago, it would have been exactly the game for Winks to make a rare start and continue his steady progress.
But now that he has held his own against Real Madrid and Liverpool in the space of four days, the England international is too important to be risked against the Hammers ahead of Saturday's trip to Old Trafford, which should go some way to determining if Spurs or Manchester United are best-equipped to challenge Manchester City for the league title.
Winks' seamless transition from a promising young player to Tottenham's most important midfielder -- at least for now -- is a testament to his character and quality, and another triumph for Mauricio Pochettino, who has done as much as anyone for English football in the last five years.
But it is also part of a wider phenomenon under Pochettino at Spurs. Whether by accident or design, the manager has changed his starting central midfielders in every campaign at the club and Winks is the latest player to benefit from this annual rotation.
In his first season at Spurs, Pochettino settled on academy graduates Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb -- after some initial trial and error -- as his two-man midfield and the promising pair looked set to be an important part of his long-term plans.
But Spurs conceded too many goals in 2014-15 -- more than relegated Hull City -- and in the summer Pochettino converted Eric Dier from a defender to a holding midfielder -- the advent, the manager would say, of the Premier League's adoption of the back-three -- and promoted Mousa Dembele, who had been a bit-part player in the previous season.
Dier and Dembele replaced Mason and Bentaleb, who were both later sold, and helped Spurs to a league title challenge in 2015-16, appearing the perfect platform for the club's attacking players.
But Pochettino needed cover for Dier, who started all but one league game that season, so Spurs signed Victor Wanyama in summer 2016. The Kenyan, far from covering, quickly became their main midfielder, usually partnering Dembele, while Dier reverted to centre-back, often as part of a more traditional back-three. Wanyama missed just three league games last season and Spurs were even better than the year before, particularly against their direct rivals.
This season, a knee injury for Wanyama, who will see a specialist this week, and a series of niggling, frustrating problems for Dembele has led to another change, leaving Winks as the man in the middle. Given those injuries, it is difficult to claim the latest change is a Pochettino masterstroke -- who knows if Winks would have started against Real or Liverpool had Dembele or Wanyama been fit -- but the midfield rotation also reflects Tottenham's evolution as a team under the Argentine.
At first, Pochettino's Tottenham were little more than a simple but effective pressing team, and Mason and Bentaleb -- players low on star quality but high on energy -- did a good job at hassling and harrying opponents, and moving the ball quickly into attacking areas.
As they evolved, Spurs relied less on hard running and more on controlling possession, building from the back and launching wave after wave of attacks, suffocating lesser opponents. Dier and Wanyama provided the defensive cover, splitting the centre-backs and allowing the full-backs to surge forward. Dembele is the perfect player to carry the ball out from the back and break the opposition's press with his strength and dribbling.
This season, though, Spurs have evolved again into a cannier, altogether more street-smart team, who have learned from last season's mistakes in the Champions League and against direct title rivals. Against Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Liverpool, Spurs had far less possession but they counterattacked quickly and in numbers.
Spurs played a back five at Real, so there was less need for Dier or Wanyama in midfield. Winks flourished, using his ability to launch counterattacks with quick, concise forward passing and break-up Real's attacks with his tenacity and reading on the game. He is still not as good as Dembele at bringing the ball out of defence but there is less need for that when Spurs play more direct football.
Winks has announced himself as a special talent in the last two matches, particularly with his performance at the Bernabeu, and he has been so good that he should remain as Pochettino's go-to midfielder for the rest of the season, particularly with Dembele's fitness always a doubt and Dier often needed in defence. But Pochettino's team are constantly evolving and that is reflected in midfield more than anywhere else on the pitch. The way things have gone, it will be interesting to see if Winks' place is still so assured in a year's time.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.