Pape Sarr and Oliver Skipp were big in Milan – but the names of the Spurs stars were anonymous

The Tottenham Hotspur midfield duo entered the competition between them with 58 minutes of Champions League experience and zero starts on the night.

They ended the evening with 238 minutes under their belt, many new admirers and wisdom beyond their combined 42 years on this planet.

When Rodrigo Bentancur tore a knee ligament against Leicester City on Saturday, the immediate thought that came to most Spurs supporters’ minds may have been a swear word. The second brooding will have been; “What on earth will the state of our midfield be like in Milan?”.

If so, you don’t need to worry. The performances of 20-year-old Pape Matar Sarr and 22-year-old Oliver Skipp were so competent and mature that they overwhelmed if not overwhelmed Bentancur, his midfielder Yves Bissouma, who was also injured, and the suspended Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg filled what was an important night for Team and club at least a sizeable hole.

Sarr in particular caught the eye. Like the team, he got off to a tepid, nervous start, but then grew in maturity and confidence. In the 20th minute, he angrily demanded the ball from his teammates or reprimanded them for not giving it to him.

At this point, Sarr was playing better at the San Siro against AC Milan than they did against Premier League Portsmouth in a third-round FA Cup tie last month.

He sprayed passes, won tackles to launch attacks, sent out Alexis Saelemaekers brilliantly to stop a Milan counterattack and almost created a chance for Spurs, he picked up players, stayed calm when he was being met by two or three opponents was surrounded and put the ball down in defense, playing over the mistakes of others and demanding more from his team-mates. As he advanced from midfield and with limited options, he stretched his arms wide and begged for movement.

It is worth remembering that Sarr is 20 years old. Not only did he show his talent here, he imposed his personality on a big game on a big stage in front of 70,000 extremely passionate Italians who were desperate to see him fail.

Nobody on the court touched the ball more times than Sarr (77 times), nobody had more open-play shots than his three, nobody played more accurate long passes than his five, and he was tied second on the court for tackles won (five).

As his touch map shows, Sarr wasn’t sitting there digging a ditch. He helped push the team on offense and protect defense.

In addition to him, Skipp, who was two years his senior, played the junior role in this partnership, but was no less important.

If Sarr was the macho handler, Skipp was his trusty whippet, sensing danger. He ran nonstop, he clipped passes, he did the running and recycling job, moving the ball briskly and no frills. His 92 percent passing accuracy was only surpassed by Milan defender Simon Kjaer, reflecting his minimalist approach that helped Spurs stay in control of decent phases of the game.

There are plenty of positives here, and rightly so given the inexperience of two players sitting fourth and fifth in Antonio Conte’s midfield pecking order.

And it’s positive that Skipp, Sarr and to a lesser extent Fraser Forster (who did whatever was asked of him) shone so brightly, bringing some of the stability and normality Conte had called for before the game.

It’s just a shame that the far more experienced teammates in midfield didn’t meet the requirements. Dejan Kulusevski delivered a second anonymous performance in four days, Cristian Romero was beaten a couple of times (including on the winning goal) and received his sixth booking in five games for another unnecessarily wild challenge, while Son Heung-min has come into effect an empty shirt.


Skipp excelled alongside Sarr in Spurs midfield (Picture: Francesco Scaccianoce/Getty Images)

Spurs offered a bit of set pieces but apart from Eric Dier’s free header from a late Ivan Perisic corner, they created little of note against an average Milan side. For a Champions League round of 16, the quality shown on both sides was vaguely bad.

At least in the loss there was a glimmer of Spurs’ future.

“They have shown the trust we place in them,” Conte said of his young midfield duo.

“They paid it back. I am very happy with their performance. Playing in the Champions League like that and playing with that atmosphere at the San Siro was usually tough for important players.

“This kind of performance allows me to look to the future with more equanimity. We had to consider that we will end the season with only three midfielders. So that kind of performance makes me more relaxed because I can rely on it.

“My job is to show my players that I really trust them, I rely on them. We have to try to improve and be prepared for the Premier League, the FA Cup and the second game against Milan.

“They will be the future of Tottenham but they are the present now.”

Bissouma could return for the business end of the season but for now it’s just Hojbjerg, Skipp and Sarr for a spell of important games including London derbies against West Ham United and Chelsea this month, an FA Cup fifth round draw against Sheffield United and the second leg against Milan.

From this evidence, that won’t be a huge problem, but as seems to be the case with Spurs at the moment, when a fire is put out, another fire rages, namely their anonymous, misfiring strikers.

That’s a theme for the weekend, but in Italy, Spurs supporters found a new love on Valentine’s Day.

Harry Kane v Chelsea (2015), Dele Alli v Manchester United (2016), Harry Winks v Real Madrid (2017): It’s been a long time since a Spurs youngster put on a performance at the highest level that made one sit up and say’ wow, but that was it. Sarr vs AC Milan (2023).

(Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Pape Sarr and Oliver Skipp were big in Milan – but the names of the Spurs stars were anonymous

Russell Falcon

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