Young Harry Winks already showcasing a rare calmness, ability to receive the ball
There was one particular moment during Harry Winks' coming-of-age performance at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago that was largely inconsequential, but said so much about Winks' maturity and composure.
In the 52nd minute, Tottenham regained possession from Real Madrid in their left-back zone, partly thanks to Winks pressuring Raphael Varane. The ball fell to Jan Vertonghen, and so Winks took the opportunity to glance over his right shoulder, scanning the pitch quickly. As Vertonghen played the ball towards him, Winks again looked over his right shoulder, before playing a first-time ball to Toby Alderweireld, and then looking again, this time over his left shoulder.
As Alderweireld receives the ball, Winks looks over his right shoulder, and then when the Belgian plays the ball out to his compatriot Vertonghen, Winks has an extra-long glance, scanning first the right wing, then the right-back zone. As Vertonghen plays the ball towards him, Winks has a final look over his right shoulder, and then controls the ball, draws in Toni Kroos, and switches a long, 50-yard ball out to Serge Aurier on the right. The Ivorian isn't being tracked by Cristiano Ronaldo, and has 40 yards of space to break into.
In eight seconds, Winks does eight things -- two passes, and six looks. It's simple but crucial -- Winks is not, at this stage of his career, a great passer because of his pinpoint accuracy (he slightly overplayed the pass to Aurier) or his vision (in the same move he conceded possession with a straight pass that was a little too obvious) but because Winks, unlike many other English midfielders, knows how to receive the ball.
Passing quality is often spoken of only in terms of how the pass is played, but logically there are two parts to any pass -- the giving and the receiving. The latter is frequently overlooked: it's about head movement, body position, first touch, being able to take the ball on the half-turn, preferably both to the left and right.
It's particularly important in the age of heavy pressing -- players in Winks' position are no longer afforded time to pick and choose their next ball. Instead they're being pressured immediately, forced to make passes quickly, and therefore need to give themselves every half-second they can.
It's partly why Jack Wilshere was so exciting upon his introduction to the Arsenal first-team in 2010-11 -- he wasn't just comfortable at playing passes, he was comfortable at receiving them, as he demonstrated in that memorable display against Barcelona in 2011. Winks' display against a similar calibre of opposition inevitably drew comparisons.
That constant checking over the shoulder is particularly crucial. It was a hallmark of Paul Scholes' play in that deep-lying position, partly because he was accustomed to receiving the ball in more advanced positions where he had less time on the ball, and therefore when brought into a deeper role those good habits came along. Frank Lampard was another always scanning the pitch for options, and particularly adept at letting the ball run across his body, using his frame to hold off opponents before distributing the ball wide.
Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, admitted that having been told his head movement wasn't good enough by Brendan Rodgers earlier in the 2013-14 campaign, was so desperate to keep looking over his shoulder for options that he took his eye off the ball for that crucial miscontrol and slip against Chelsea. Even a player like Gerrard never entirely mastered a seemingly simple aspect of midfield play.
After English football spent much of the 2000s working out how to incorporate its best midfield talents in the same national team, the 2010s has been an entirely different story. At Euro 2012, Andrea Pirlo outwitted England because they didn't have enough bodies in that zone, at the 2014 World Cup England looked like a 4-2-4 at times and were again overrun, and Euro 2016 saw the sudden, bizarre use of Wayne Rooney in a midfield role.
The current squad is desperately short on quality in that position -- Dele Alli will be used as more of a support striker, Eric Dier is as much a defender as a midfielder, and Jordan Henderson has established himself as a regular despite never particularly impressing in an England shirt.
The fact Gareth Southgate has recently handed starts to Jake Livermore, a functional but unspectacular player for West Brom, the Premier League side who care least about possession, shows how desperate England are in that zone. Winks did well upon his debut against Lithuania last month and should he hold down a regular position in the Tottenham side, will have a great chance of starting at next summer's World Cup, not least because he knows Alli, Dier, Harry Kane, Danny Rose and the recently departed Kyle Walker from club level.
Tottenham is a good fit for Winks, and not just because Mauricio Pochettino likes bringing through youngsters. Spurs supporters appreciate midfielders with guile on the ball -- Winks isn't quite Glenn Hoddle in possession, but there are certainly elements of the silky Luka Modric, one of his opponents in this week's clash at Wembley. Modric wouldn't have been appreciated at other clubs, where work rate and tackling quality take precedence. But Modric's calm, graceful habit of collecting possession from one flank before distributing it across to the other made him a fan favourite, and an inspiration for Winks.
"When I was coming through the academy at a young age he was someone I always used to watch at White Hart Lane," Winks said after returning from the Bernabeu. "I still admire him to this day -- he's a fantastic, world-class player. To play against him was special.
"Him and Toni 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...being on the pitch with them you realise their quality and just how good they are."
But it also makes you realise how good Winks is, that he can play up against them and shine away at the European champions. Increasingly, youngsters should be looking up to Winks -- not just for his contributions in possession, but for his approach before he's even received the ball.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.