'Misfit' Moussa Sissoko still Mauricio Pochettino's go-to guy at Tottenham
Moussa Sissoko divides opinion: Tottenham's fans generally think he isn't good enough, while the manager disagrees.
The Frenchman is a curious player: he is probably most effective on the right side of a three-man central midfield unit, where he can bring his physicality to bear while also carrying the ball forward, but Pochettino rarely uses that system and the player seems to sometimes lack basic technical skill.
As a result, Sissoko has often looked like a misfit. He has also frequently been a scapegoat for supporters.
Yet Pochettino clearly trusts him. Last season the 28-year-old played in 47 of Tottenham's 55 matches, and he was in the starting lineup when Spurs faced Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, drawing 1-1. In January, Pochettino launched a strong defence of Sissoko, stating he was one of the club's most important players
The Argentinian also theorised that the midfielder was still being punished for his "first impressions" when he struggled to find his feet after his £30 million deadline day arrival from Newcastle in August 2016.
Sissoko has never hidden his difficulties in his debut season -- but he feels the last one was better. And, regardless of what his critics say, he feels valued by the people whose opinions matter to him most.
"The staff are always happy with me so I'll try to keep going," he said during Spurs' tour of the U.S. "My first season here wasn't easy. I came late, I didn't have preseason. It wasn't easy and it was a new challenge for me.
"But last year I played a lot of games and I did well, like the team. This year is going to be the same. I will try to play more and I will try to do better and better.
"My ambitions are the same as always -- to try to improve, to help the team finish higher up the league, to go far in the Champions League and try to perform."
Sissoko will also hope to win back his international place, having been left out of the France squad that won the World Cup.
That omission robbed him of a chance of redemption after a heart-breaking end to Euro 2016, when the Spurs man and his compatriots lost the final to Portugal as the host nation.
Sissoko admitted last October that he still thought about that match, and was hoping to make amends in Russia.
He could therefore have been forgiven for having mixed feelings when his countrymen lifted the trophy without him -- although, if there is any bitterness, he is hiding it well.
"This is life sometimes," he said. "I wanted to be part of the team but the manager decided to leave me out. I was very happy for them. They deserve it. Now I'm looking forward and we will see what will happen."
Sissoko will be aided in his ambitions with club and country by the fact that, while he is about to begin his third campaign with Tottenham, this is the first time he has had a full preseason with the club.
He arrived too late in 2016 to train with his new teammates, and last year he missed the trip to the U.S. through illness.
This time he is part of the squad for the three International Champions Cup matches -- and he started in central midfield on Wednesday as Spurs beat Roma 4-1 in San Diego, playing a key role in the north Londoners' fourth goal.
Attacking down the right side, he delivered a low cross which was palmed out to Lucas Moura, who found the bottom corner.
"We showed some very positive things and we need to carry on from this performance," said Sissoko after the match. "Not only for me but for all the team, it's important to train very well, to take these games seriously and try to be ready for the first game of the season."
There is an increasingly strong chance that Sissoko will start that first game, against his former club Newcastle on Aug. 11, given Spurs' lack of central midfielders.
Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier are on holiday after the World Cup, Harry Winks and Josh Onomah are injured, and Victor Wanyama missed the match against Roma after feeling discomfort in his knee during training this week.
For many fans, the prospect of Sissoko starting at St James' Park will be a concern.
But, for the man himself, an opportunity may be approaching to start his third chapter at Tottenham on a positive note and show his detractors just what his manager sees in him.