Fernandinho's timeless performances for Man City belie his veteran status
It has been six-and-a-half months since Harry Winks last started a match and 10 months since he last played at his top level with full fitness before November's ankle injury against Crystal Palace.
That is a long time in football, and players who miss lengthy stretches can sometimes be left behind. Teammates or rivals can seize their opportunities to impress. Sides can evolve without them.
Yet Winks has not lost any of his importance during his absence, for club or for country. Both squads need a player with his talents.
England are still missing a deep-lying playmaker, a fact that was all too clear in their World Cup semifinal defeat against Croatia and in Saturday's loss to Spain.
Those wondering who could possibly fill the void have obviously forgotten Winks, who excels at keeping possession with quick, short passes and was named the man of the match in his debut for the Three Lions against Lithuania last October.
Had he been on the bench against Croatia in Russia, he might just have halted England's infuriating and regressive habit of punting the ball straight back to their opponents as the pressure increased.
It is quite a challenge to become England's version of Luka Modric, the newly crowned UEFA Men's Player of the Year. But Winks faced the Croatian twice in the Champions League last term, starting both matches against Real Madrid, and he more than held his own as Spurs drew 1-1 at the Bernabeu before triumphing 3-1 at Wembley.
Winks also played throughout Tottenham's impressive 4-1 home win over Liverpool in October. He can be just as influential for his club as his national team.
Central midfield is a problem area for Spurs, and there is a clear need to plan for life after Mousa Dembele.
The matches against Newcastle and Fulham at the start of this season showed that Spurs still need the Belgian, who came off the bench to shore up the midfield and play an influential role in both victories. However, the 2-1 defeat at Watford just before the international break only increased the concerns about his fitness and consistency.
When the Hornets launched their fightback in the final 25 minutes, Dembele -- who this time played from the start -- looked tired and sluggish. He conceded the foul that led to Troy Deeney's equaliser. He was then beaten for pace by Daryl Janmaat, who crossed and gave Roberto Pereyra a header on goal, and finally he made little effort to stop Craig Cathcart from leaping above him and heading in the winner.
In the past, Dembele would have been one of the first names on the team sheet against Liverpool on Saturday. But it is less clear what to expect from the 31-year-old now, and any mistakes in front of the defence could be fatal against Jurgen Klopp's high-pressing side and rapid front three.
The Reds' decisive goal in their 1-0 victory over Brighton last month highlights the danger. It took one sloppy moment from Yves Bissouma in his own half, and James Milner's tackle gave Mohamed Salah the opportunity to fire into the bottom corner.
Spurs will need to be safe but quick with their passing in central midfield, and Winks has the perfect skill set for the task. The only question is whether he is ready to start a match of this magnitude when he has made only three brief substitute appearances this term.
Perhaps not, but he might still have a part to play, like against Watford when he replaced Dembele in the 86th minute -- rather too late -- and promptly helped his team create a headed chance for Harry Kane six yards out. It was an immediate reminder of what Winks can offer with his positive passing.
Mauricio Pochettino has other selection dilemmas ahead of Saturday's showdown. Does he opt for a back three again, including the pacy Davinson Sanchez, against Liverpool's three-pronged attack? Or does he go for a four-man rearguard, as he did when his team triumphed 3-0 at Manchester United?
The Argentinian has used various formations this season, so which will it be this time: 4-3-3, 3-1-4-2, 4-4-2 or a fourth system in five matches? And will there be a place for the returning Son Heung-Min, given that Lucas Moura has starred in the South Korean's absence and was the Premier League's player of the month?
Pochettino has decisions to make, but he will undoubtedly be happy that Winks has re-entered the picture and started to give him more headaches.
With Spurs beginning their European campaign next week and then their quest for a domestic cup, Winks is coming into contention at a good time and should soon be stepping up his bid to reclaim the status he enjoyed with both club and country last autumn.
Fernandinho Luiz Rosa was born 33 years ago. There are no records as to whether he tackled the midwife or took intelligent possession of the obstetrician's stethoscope in the delivery room of that hospital in Londrina.
A lot was made of this relatively insignificant milestone during the summer, when Pep Guardiola was widely reported to be shopping for a player in the Brazilian's position. It was said that the tough-tackling, hard-running game demanded of the player sitting in the hole between central defence and midfield -- and in City's case, a midfield constructed almost entirely of attack-minded players -- required special feats of resistance that might be beyond somebody of such advanced footballing years.
Evidence of Guardiola's concerns appeared to come from City's failed bid to persuade Jorginho and his advisers that life in Manchester could match that in London. For whatever reason, the Napoli midfielder decided London had more of what he required than the north of England. London is England's capital, so it was a sound enough decision. Chelsea offered him considerably more money, another logical reason to opt for the glittering streets of Kensington, but -- on purely football grounds -- it might be said that the Italy international missed a trick.
Fernandinho, then, was left to go at it alone in the sacred space between the ball-playing antics of his defensive colleagues and the mesmeric meandering of his midfield cohorts. Would the old man be able to keep it all together, experts asked?
Firstly, Fernandinho's game has long been one of expert economy of movement, with a step to the side here and a lunge forward there often deemed to be more than enough to achieve what he is stationed on the field for.
City's game, so expansive in its possession of the ball, leaves the Brazilian with a watching brief across the park and up and down the central axis. Although he is often the last man making a telling defensive tackle or the man on the edge of the box taking a pot shot, his game is about maximum security and clever but restricted movement.
When stretched -- and this can happen, owing to City's emphasis on shooting forward en masse -- he is also one of the best perpetrators of the snide nudge on any opposition runner attempting a swift counter-attack. In short, neither his legs nor his age should impede him from doing the classic covering job for at least another season.
The trouble starts when, or if, City find themselves competing in the latter stages of four competitions. Fernandinho, like all others, deserves a rest from time to time and needs to be kept fresh for the important battles that surely loom ahead. This is where Ilkay Gundogan can play his part. Unable thus far to impress sufficiently to hold down a regular spot, the German is adept at running hard between the lines, finding the simple out pass and being back in time to bolster defence. He is sufficiently adept at all of these things to have shown up on Barcelona's radar of late. He is, in the current structure, too valuable to let go, however.
Guardiola's penchant for employing his staff in unorthodox ways has also seen John Stones moved forward as cover. Certainly, until January, City must sit tight and hope Fernandinho's legs hold up and that Gundogan's surge in form holds. Transfer talk of Dortmund's Julian Weigl, Wolves' new star Ruben Neves and PSG's Adrien Rabiot will in the meantime continue to simmer nicely.
Whether rivals will see City's failure to recruit backup in this part of the team as a possible area of weakness remains to be seen. Already during the opening weeks of 2018-19, a number of approaches to stemming the sky blue tide have been launched.
Arsenal took the refreshing route of not watering their pitch before the opening game of the season, presumably in the vain hope that City's passing game would founder on the frazzled grass of the Emirates. Some hope. They were dismantled.
Wolves and Newcastle took the opposite views that City could be attacked or should be contained. The former survived well enough, the latter lost by a goal but spent long periods of the game chasing shadows.
So far, Liverpool's strategy (invite a new manager, who has a curiously successful record against Guardiola-managed teams) appears to have worked best. Despite being spanked 5-0 at the Etihad early last season, Jurgen Klopp's planning got the better of Guardiola at Anfield in the return league game and in both legs of a fraught Champions League quarterfinal.
The fast-moving energy of their play allowed Liverpool to build up such a head of steam that City became disoriented and lost on three occasions. This cannot be put down to luck. Having said that, few teams have the personnel necessary to employ such tactics, and few clubs have a manager brave enough to exercise them without a little glance at what might go wrong at the other end.
With Fernandinho patrolling the central areas, how to beat City remains the biggest unanswered question in the Premier League.