Ryan Sessegnon delivers an instinctive one-word answer when asked how he would sum up his time at Tottenham Hotspur: “Rollercoaster… I don’t even know where to begin.”
Since the defender joined Spurs in a £25 million move from Fulham in August 2019, he has experienced four different permanent managers, one caretaker, persistent injury problems and a loan spell in Germany during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That combination would be a tough challenge for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old looking to establish himself in the Premier League, and Sessegnon realised he needed help.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with ESPN, Sessegnon is admirably candid about sourcing his own psychologist for sessions over Zoom after yet another fitness setback, a thigh problem that curtailed his progress on loan at Bundesliga club Hoffenheim during the 2020-21 season.
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“I first started speaking to someone when I went to Germany because there was a little spell where… at the start, it started well and then there was a little problem injury-wise,” he said. “And I started thinking too much about my game. I wasn’t feeling free. I wasn’t doing things that I was doing before, so I started speaking to someone about the mental side of the game and how doubts can creep into your mind, distract you and put you down. So it was more about bringing self-belief and positivity into your thoughts.”
Although clubs are slowly addressing the long-neglected area of mental health, Manchester United became one of the latest English teams to appoint a sports psychologist in December when interim boss Ralf Rangnick hired Sascha Lense. Sessegnon’s decision to source his own counsel independently is a testament to his willingness to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of a successful career.
Sessegnon has never spoken publicly in this detail before about seeing a psychologist, and he does so now while recovering from his latest injury setback, another hamstring problem which abruptly halted his streak of six consecutive appearances from Feb. 13 to March 7, his longest run in the Tottenham first team.
To date, Sessegnon has made 27 appearances for Spurs, a tally still fewer than the 29 outings he made for Hoffenheim during his eight-month spell in the Bundesliga. That total of 56 appearances is outweighed by the 62 games he has missed for both clubs due to fitness issues which led Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte to declare last month: “I think that there is a predisposition [for Sessegnon] to have this type of problem and especially muscular problems. He’s very strong physically. Sometimes maybe to be so strong physically, instead of being good for your body, sometimes it can be a problem.”
After having this quote put to him, Sessegnon replied: “Definitely it is something that I have to manage because I am at a stage where… coming through when I was a bit younger at Fulham, I had no injuries.
“And then I’m at Spurs now and I’ve had a few problems but as I’m getting older, I need to start managing the intensity of training, the way I train. Obviously under Conte, the training is intense anyway but it is about being a bit more mature and smart in certain sessions here and there, not going 100% — that’s just my nature and the way I play. It is just knowing your body, being smart and trying to be available every game. So going forward I’m trying to learn these things.”
Ryan Sessegnon says Antonio Conte is a perfectionist who inspires his players to work to the best of their ability.
It has been a steep learning curve at Tottenham for the England Under-21 international, born in Roehampton, south-west London, and part of a strong family football heritage: twin brother, Steven plays at Plymouth Argyle on loan from Fulham, elder brother Chris is a semi-professional, and cousin Stephane has enjoyed a 17-year playing career, most recently appearing for Turkish side Genclerbirligi.
Spurs tracked Sessegnon for several years as a teenager at Fulham after he broke into the first team in 2016, quickly gaining a reputation as a dynamic attack-minded left-back with fearsome pace and an eye for goal. Liverpool and Manchester United were among the clubs tracking Sessegnon as Fulham were promoted to the Premier League in 2018 and subsequently relegated a year later, but not before he became the first player born in the 2000s to score a goal in English football’s top flight.
Then-Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino was the decisive factor in Sessegnon’s move across the capital, but that transfer coincided with the start of his persistent hamstring issues, succumbing for the first time while with England at the 2019 European U21 Championships. A four-month rehabilitation period followed, and as a result, he only played for Spurs twice under Pochettino.
“When I was a bit younger, I was aware that Spurs wanted me to sign previous to when I did, but when I eventually did, he was the main reason why,” explained Sessegnon. “Obviously I knew his track record with young players at the club. I looked at that and thought it was a good opportunity for me to come and play a lot of games at a young age under him. When he went, it was difficult because he was the main reason why I signed and when I was coming back to full fitness, a new manager had come in.
“In terms of me getting to know him as a person, the way he wants to play, I couldn’t take anything [from him] because literally he was gone when I was ready to come back in. In terms of myself, I think I learned a lot about myself in that period mentally. It shaped it into the person I’ve become.”
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Pochettino was replaced by Jose Mourinho, a widely respected manager but one who does not possess anything like his predecessor’s track record for developing young players. Speaking shortly after he was appointed in November 2019, Mourinho compared Sessegnon to Chelsea and England legend Ashley Cole before in the same breath stating he needed to “learn how to defend” and that “in this moment he is not ready to play as a left-back,” immediately laying down a stark challenge.
“In a way, I understood what he was saying because the defensive side at that time, I probably wasn’t as aggressive off the ball as he wanted me to be,” said Sessegnon in response.
“Looking back now, I kind of agree with what he was saying because it wasn’t until I went to Germany, I think my defensive side improved in terms of physicality, being aggressive off the ball. I needed that trip to Germany to really understand what he was saying. So, when he’s saying the stuff about learning to defend better, at that time he was right.”
Spurs signed left-back Sergio Reguilon from Real Madrid in September 2020 and just over a fortnight later, Sessegnon joined Hoffenheim on loan. COVID-19 was beginning to surge through the United Kingdom again, leaving many concerned about leaving their homes, let alone leaving the country.
“In Germany they were a bit stricter with the rules, I think there was a curfew for everyone — you couldn’t even be outside past 8 p.m.,” he said. “So, there was literally nothing to do. I had to go training and come back to my apartment. Very isolated. Luckily, I was with my girlfriend. But if I was by myself, I would have lost my mind honestly because [it was a] new country, new language, didn’t know anyone. It was very difficult at the start.”
Ryan Sessegnon’s run of six consecutive Premier League starts for Tottenham this season included the 3-2 win at Manchester City. Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
Sessegnon went on to impress at Hoffenheim but by the time he returned to Spurs last summer, Ryan Mason had replaced Mourinho as an interim boss, and the club were in the midst of a protracted search for a permanent replacement which eventually ended with Nuno Espirito Santo’s arrival. Once again, a muscular injury — sustained on international duty in September — took away any chance for Sessegnon to make an impact.
“As soon as [Nuno] and his staff came in, they were very welcoming to me,” he said. “I remember we had conversations where he said he tried to sign me when he was at Wolves and I played against him a few times in the Championship and the Prem and I knew that he liked me from that time. But again, I didn’t even get to play much under him.”
Nuno’s tenure lasted only 17 games before Conte was appointed, triggering another reset both collectively and for Sessegnon himself. His first start under Conte came in November against NS Mura in a Europa Conference League away game. Sessegnon was sent off after 31 minutes, picking up two bookings 20 minutes apart.
“I kind of thought to myself I’d messed my chance up because I thought ‘OK, it’s my first start I want to impress’ but I wasn’t really in the game,” said Sessegnon. “He [Conte] didn’t say anything to me directly afterwards. I think it was the next day, we watched the game back and he was saying ‘you didn’t even touch the ball [after the first yellow card] and in that time you got a red card.’ It was quite bad.”
Conte is equally forthright in his news conferences. “There have been times when we haven’t been good enough and he has let us know that in the changing room,” continued Sessegnon. “He tells the truth. He says what he thinks to our faces and he’ll say the same in front of the cameras as well. That’s just how he is.”
But Conte’s relentless pursuit of improvement has helped engender a revival which now sees Spurs holding the advantage in a tight race to secure Champions League football next season.
“When you have someone who is so passionate about the game, it rubs off on you,” said Sessegnon. “He’s a perfectionist. He wants to be the best and he is one of the best so everything you do you want to do it to the best of your ability. We’re in the tactics room every day trying to better ourselves, learn about the opponents more as well. It is more about the way we can improve and I think the team has taken great steps forward.”
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte substituted Ryan Sessegnon after just 28 minutes of the home defeat to Wolves, but kept faith with him in the matches that followed. Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Sessegnon has done the same. Those six consecutive starts featured wins at Manchester City, Leeds United and Everton as he began to thrive in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, a shape which asks so much from the wing-backs and seems to play to Sessegnon’s strengths.
“I think I’m a mixture of left-wing and left-back so it is perfect for me,” he said. “He [Conte] wants to win, he wants us to play with a bit more freedom, take responsibility and bring the game to the opposition.
“I think the [wing-back] positions are probably the most important in the team, in terms of creating overloads attacking-wise and defensively we are stronger as a back five. But then obviously supporting attacks to get crosses in and to score goals. It is a very demanding job, you use a lot of energy but it’s about managing that, being smart and effective at the right time.
“That type of performance [at City] and game that I needed to be honest with you because I knew if I was to do well against them, the next game I would have a chance to play again and again, and I’m just trying to find that consistency.”
Sessegnon is now aiming to start another run in the team. He returned to training earlier this month and although he was named on the bench for Saturday’s 4-0 win at Aston Villa, this weekend’s clash with Brighton & Hove Albion was always his target date as he informed the coaching staff he did not want to rush himself back to ensure he can play a key role in the run-in, which is now looking like a straight fight between north London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal for fourth spot. They play each other in what is shaping up to be a monumental clash on May 12.
“We want to keep the run going and I think the game against them might be decisive,” said Sessegnon. “I’m not originally from north London but I know the type of rivalry between London teams, especially with the next door neighbours there fighting for the same thing. It’ll be a crazy, crazy game. For us, if we were to finish fourth, it would be a massive achievement for the club.”
And quite a way for the rollercoaster to continue.