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Ryan Sessegnon: A point to prove in 21/22?

The arrival of Nuno Espirito Santo at Tottenham could benefit Ryan Sessegnon in his return to the club. It would remind fans of a rare talent still in its infancy.

On the surface, Tottenham’s 2019/20 transfer window was a long overdue boost of excitement for the fans.

Having endured two transfer windows of zero expenditure, this seemed like a worthy wait. Mauricio Pochettino nursed a thinning squad to the Champions League Final. Were it not for a contentious penalty decision, Spurs could easily have ended the 2018/19 season as the best in Europe.

The brush with unexpected silverware brought the loosening of Daniel Levy’s wallet. £54 million on Tanguy Ndombele. £28.8 million (after an initial loan agreement) on Giovani Lo Celso. And on deadline day itself – £24.3 million on Ryan Sessegnon.

At the time, Sessegnon was regarded as one of England’s best prospects on par with players like Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho in his age-group.

Capable of explosive performances at left back, wing back and at left wing, the nineteen year old was a project worth punting on, and under a full-back nurturer like Pochettino, it seemed the perfect move for all parties.

Yet two years on, Sessegnon has only made twelve appearances for the club.

An impressive loan spell last season with Hoffenheim has undoubtedly put him back in contention at his parent club and a change of guard could provide an even bigger opportunity. But in a season of transition, just what will Ryan Sessegnon bring to Spurs?

False start

The optimism surrounding Tottenham’s transfer business in the summer of 2019 faded rapidly. By mid- November, the club’s adored son Pochettino was sacked. Results had been dire, and rather than kicking on from the European final made the previous year, that historic night had taken on a freakishly lucky tone.

The Argentine’s development of Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne at Southampton, and Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at Spurs, made the prospect of a linkup with Ryan Sessegnon mouth-watering. 120 appearances for Fulham had yielded an astonishing 25 goals and 18 assists. Yes these had come across a range of forward and defensive positions, but the scope to develop these attacking talents in a defender was rare.

Yet those months under Pochettino brought Sessegnon only two appearances, totalling a measly fifteen minutes. A freefalling side was not the place to be breaking in a teenager.

Pochettino’s successor did little to inspire the hope of an integrated Ryan Sessegnon. Jose Mourinho’s recent track record of relations with young players was closer to a hanging gallery of fist fights, rather than glowing tales of development.

Sessegnon would appear ten times under the Portuguese that season. Although still fleeting, these matches included Sessegnon’s most meaningful North London contribution in the Champions League against Bayern Munich. Starting as a left winger, the teenager scored his first club goal for the club in the Allianz arena. Sessegnon reacted first to a loose ball and lashed a fierce half volley past Manuel Neuer to equalise, only for Spurs to lose 3-1.

There was still little faith in Sessegnon to start as a full back. To grow him as a winger or wing back seemed the safest means of training his abilities. Even with Danny Rose exiled from the first team, Ryan Sessegnon was not to be the beneficiary. A mistrust that came to light further ahead of the following season.

Ryan Sessegnon in Sinsheim

Spurs’ need for full back reinforcement was desperate. Mourinho had no intention reintegrating Danny Rose, and at right back had already added Matt Doherty.

On the opposite flank, Real Madrid’s Sergio Reguilon was an exciting addition. Among Europe’s best left backs the previous year, the Spaniard was a welcome addition. Yet this did little to solve the Ryan Sessegnon situation. At best he was now third choice left back and with little hope of featuring as a wing back under Mourinho.

A loan to the Bundesliga was both a sensible and exciting option. Such an experience would give Sessegnon the minutes to refind that sparkling Championship form he had experienced with Fulham. It would also allow Tottenham to watch from afar. To gauge the development of their young player.

A mixed season for Hoffenheim would ensue. Eleventh place, ten points above the relegation play-off position. Coach Sebastian Hoeneß’s first season in top flight management was one of consolidation, without threatening to build on the pervious year’s sixth place finish.

For Ryan Sessegnon however, it was his most prolific season minute wise since 2018/19. Seventeen league starts, and six appearances from the bench, was a healthy dose of football. That these appearances came predominantly at left back (in a back four), is even more encouraging. Hoffenheim used ten different formations across the campaign, and were allowed to do so by Sessegnon’s capacity to play in a four, or as a wing-back in a back five/three.

Making strides

To see Ryan Sessegnon playing regular football in a Europa League side was gratifying enough for his parent club. That he would also impress, and as a left back, made the sanctioning of this move all the better.

Sessegnon is a physically compact player. Just five-foot-six, his body shape is not archetypal for a top Premier League fullback. Yet there are certain advantages that have grown as a result.

In 2020/21, he demonstrated an improved ability to read the game defensively. Rather than looking like a winger being shoe-horned into a defensive location, he now looked made for the role. His 46 blocks and 67 tackles and interceptions across the season placed him fifth across the entire squad. In the defensive third, only two players outranked him for total pressures, yet Sessegnon was only dribbled past less than once a game.

He can often find himself physically disadvantaged in one on one duels. Therefore reading space and cutting out anticipated passes is a major defensive attribute he has developed to counter this. With the added wide defensive cover in a three or five man defence, these skills are ideal for the Ryan Sessegnon role.

Going forward, Sessegnon contributed two goals and three assists in the Bundesliga. Both goals were the product of excellent spatial awareness in attacking areas. The first, versus VfB Stuttgart, saw him race outside the full back before leathering past the goalkeeper. The second saw Sessegnon anticipate the drop of a deflected cross at the back post, and steer into the roof of the net.

His two goals came from just four shots across the entire season. This is certainly an area to improve, as even in his pomp at Fulham, Sessegnon was taking only 1.2 shots/90. To fully exploit his rare quality in the final third, a freedom to unleash and fire shots from those tight left sided angles will only benefit Ryan Sessegnon further.

Ryan Sessegnon: Spurs Star?

We are still weeks away from the season starting, and the transfer window shutting. Therefore any debate of how Ryan Sessegnon might feature at Tottenham could be quelled by movement later in the summer. Another left back arrival, or a second season on loan, for example.

However, perhaps for the first time since he arrived at the club, there is a palpable sense that Sessegnon could become a meaningful member of Tottenham’s team. The arrival of Nuno Espirito Santo as the new manager can claim a part in this.

Nuno’s Wolves side of the past three seasons have rarely deviated from a 3-4-3, or 3-5-2. Reunited with Matt Doherty, the use of he and Jonny as the marauding wing-backs allowed Wolves central control without having to sacrfice solidity to attack. Doherty in particular was not only a crossing threat, but would target the back post himself.

It is too simplistic to suggest that Nuno will mirror this approach at Tottenham. However the presence of Doherty, plus Reguilon and Sessegnon on the opposite side, make it a probability. The Irishman’s attacking tendencies were severely harmed in Mourinho’s dour blockade structure. Should he be afforded the space and liberty to drive into the box, or cross for the advancing left wing-back, Doherty can recapture his Wolves form.

This of course would only benefit Reguilon and Sessegnon. Likely to be a transitional team, keen to hit on the counter rather than recycle possession, they will find joy in the quick feet and release work of Tanguy Ndombele. Such patterns make the appointment on Nuno a sensible, and potentially exciting, one.

From the perspective of Ryan Sessegnon, the presence of Reguilon remains problematic. The financial outlay, and untapped potential of the Spaniard make him the undisputed first choice at left back, and wing back. However, despite impressing in Germany, Sessegnon is not at the stage to claim such a berth yet. A season of progress, alongside an equally promising player in Reguilon, is a sensible development step.

Stunted or Saved?

The Ryan Sessegnon of 2017/18 was a freak spike to the senses. 15 goals and six assists from an eighteen year old to promote his side is no normal return. It inevitably set expectations high, and promised that he could deliver at a younger age than most.

Two goals and six assists in a dreadful Fulham team the following year calmed those shrill voices. Enough that demands on his teenage shoulders could be scaled back, without losing sight on the long term potential.

This has been the tale of Ryan Sessegnon’s career. A series of major highs, followed by landings back to reality. None too major to offset his trajectory. Just enough to remind people of his true age.

His spell with Hoffenheim was encouraging, so much so that he won their Player of the Month award for November. With Ben Davies likely to spend time as the left sided centre back in Nuno’s preferred system, Sessegnon’s attacking thrust and improved defensive work, make him a terrific back up further out to the flank. To alternate Sessegnon and Reguilon will maximise both players, and fulfil a system to make use of this Spurs team’s talent.

Twelve appearances over two seasons did little to dispel the signing of Ryan Sessegnon as being anything other than talent stockpiling. This could be the season to see their investment come to fruition.

Ryan Sessegnon may well have a point to prove this season. Tottenham Hotspur however, also have one to make in their use of this special talent.

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