In February 2009, shortly after Sissoko debuted in the first team for Toulouse in Ligue 1, the Toulouse FC site Media Pitchounes asked the rising star in an interview, "With major European clubs keeping an eye on you, if you had to pick one to realize your dreams, which would it be?"
"If I had a choice to make, it would be Arsenal!" Sissoko answered horrifyingly. "The English league is the one I like the most and that suits my game best, and Arsenal is a club that I've loved since I was little, that I even support today."
While Sissoko may not have dreamed of Newcastle, he looked during Tuesday's epic victory against Aston Villa to be the player of Newcastle's dreams. In a match that was in some ways too typical for this star-crossed season - early promise, late collapse - Sissoko was arguably the difference between grinding out three points and frittering them away. While he appeared unaccustomed to the heightened pace and faded somewhat before being subbed off in the 79th minute, for much of the match he provided both a creative spark and a steadying force that has been sorely missing lately for the Mags. Perhaps not coincidentally, the minutes after Sissoko departed were some of the more nerve-scorching I've endured as a fan, and the NUFC Twitterverse seemed to agree.
The brightest flash for Sissoko on Tuesday was the sublime, curling ball at the 19th minute that turned into a makeable though not automatic chance buried by Papiss Cissé, the sort of service that could revive Cissé's form in a hurry. But there were a host of other subtler moments to appreciate from Sissoko, including a superb chip in the 10th that Cissé might've guided in if not for a linesman with an itchy offside finger. (Cissé's reputation for roaming seems to have made him to offside flags what Cheick Tioté is to yellow cards.)
All this will come as little surprise if you've had a chance to watch Toulouse recently in Ligue 1. For my money, Sissoko may have been the most versatile midfielder in that league prior to his transfer. He's comfortable in a defensive or attacking posture; he can hold, he can distribute, he's quick, and with his size and strength he's a beast - Shola on afterburners. My co-blogger Matt opines that with Sissoko in the fold "You've got 4-5 guys (Cabaye, Sissoko, Marveaux, Anita, HBA?) you can put at the pinnacle of the midfield triangle, and probably 5-6 good options you can use in the defensive midfield roles as well. Could come in quite handy once the Europa League starts up again to have options like that. It also gives Pardew the ability to change the focus from defense to attack or vice versa without making substitutions." To which I say, given recent results, anything that keeps Alan Pardew from making substitutions may be a good thing for everyone.
In fact, what Matt suggests is what Toulouse had done effectively with Sissoko: changed his role to alter the shape of the team without multiple subs. Opponents have seemed at times to be caught off-guard by Sissoko crashing forward. French football observers online say Sissoko's attacking skill has developed later than the holding and defense, which may be why Newcastle was able to steal him from bigger clubs that have shown interest but may not have been paying as close attention. The signing was a shock to me for sure, having written not long ago that the idea of Newcastle landing Sissoko, given the incessant rumors linking him with mega-clubs across Europe, was essentially a pipedream.
I was wrong. So delightfully wrong. Pipedream, no. Dream - just maybe.