The battle of the North London improvers

The battle of the North London improvers

The most-improved player award isn’t always the most coveted of titles, ranking somewhere above ‘clubman of the year’ but well below the more meaningful individual honours; but for two players at Sunday’s North London derby it is a story worth telling.

In these modern days of three matches a week and huge pressure on every fixture, the tales of players being developed and improved by a manager are rather few and far between.

How many players can you think of at Manchester United who have been improved by Jose Mourinho, for instance? How many would you select for that kind of title under Arsene Wenger, beyond the obvious candidates in his first few seasons in England?

And yet Pep Guardiola seems to manage it at Manchester City (you only have to look at the remarkable improvements made by Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Kyle Walker in the last two seasons) and there are examples at Liverpool, too.

Now, crucially for Arsenal and Tottenham fans, there seems to be managers in north London who are achieving the same.

Let’s start with Moussa Sissoko, the hero of the hour for Spurs following a barnstorming performance against Inter Milan at Wembley in the Champions League.

Anybody watching that display would have found it almost impossible to believe this was the same player who flopped so badly as a €30m signing in his first 12 months in London that he was virtually a laughing stock by the time the time he was left out of France’s squad for this year’s World Cup Finals in Russia.

Mauricio Pochettino, however, has never given up on him, not even at the age of 29. He knew, from Sissoko’s performances at Newcastle — and even more significantly from his displays for France at Euro 2016 — that the midfielder had quality to be mined. All he needed was the right handling, the right training, an arm around his shoulder, perhaps.

Now Spurs fans are singing his name again.

The terrace anthem ‘Wake me up before you go-go, who needs Bale when we’ve got Sissoko?’ has always been belted out with more than a large slice of mischievous irony — but these days it is laced with genuine affection.

“After I came here, some periods weren’t easy but I never gave up and everyone helped me to give my best,” Sissoko said earlier this week. “It was a great feeling to hear fans sing my name because every player wants to have this kind of emotion.

“Maybe some people will like you, some people don’t and you have to accept football is like that. I know I have the support of my teammates and my staff, and this was the most important thing. I said to myself I need to just keep working and I will see success if I am doing that.”

The real secret to Sissoko’s success, however, has been the support, coaching and nurturing given to him by Pochettino — and he arrives at Sunday’s North London derby ready to emphasise his new role as terrace hero.

The Frenchman, who has a contract at Spurs until 2021, said: “The manager has just given me the confidence to express myself and to believe in my ability, which I have been trying to show. In training, too, he is always letting me try new things – be positive, be direct and prove it in the games. It is working for me so I just have to keep it going.

“Do I feel like a better player than a year ago? I’d just say I am more confident. I feel that even if I make a mistake, I am able to go again. I think that is the difference.”

If Sissoko has completed the transformation from zero to hero, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi is still navigating the journey. For a player who came through the ranks at the Emirates and who clearly has the club in his heart, it’s a strange phenomenon that the 22-year-old is often picked out for criticism and even abuse on social media by Arsenal fans.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from the frustration of Wenger’s later years, perhaps it’s that as a young player he remains inconsistent. But there’s a growing number of supporters who are recognising Iwobi’s improvement since Unai Emery’s arrival.

His link-up with Sead Kolasinac, another player who looks far more comfortable under new management, has been interesting this season and, having grown at the World Cup with Nigeria, the winger looks ready to take the next step.

He puts much of his improvement down to Emery, saying: “He’s always encouraging me to be positive, always encouraging me to work hard off the ball for my team as well. He has helped every player individually.”

There is certainly evidence that Iwobi is improving. He was named alongside Lucas Torreira and Bert Leno as a candidate for player of the month for November by Arsenal and in 14 appearances this season he has played a part in five goals.

“He is very young and I think he is playing with improving moments in his career,” Emery said. “We need to also push him more to improve because he has the quality and the capacity.

“I think a lot of it is confidence, every player needs it. I want every player to feel this confidence but also with a big demand from us and on himself also to work every day.”

Even with his limited English, that quote from Emery sums up what clubs are increasingly wanting from their managers and head coaches in the modern era — not just a man to pick the team and set the tactics but someone who can improve the players under his charge and play a part in their development.

Arsenal and Tottenham fans will see the benefits of that focus at the Emirates on Sunday in what is one of the most highly-anticipated North London derbies of recent times, given the encouraging form of both teams.

So although the headlines are normally written by the likes of Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, don’t take your eyes off the improvers behind them. Not all players are natural heroes — some are waiting to be made.

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