Ryan Sessegnon: ‘Nobody is superhuman but you can try to be as close as possible to it’ | Tottenham Hotspur

The most exacting element of Antonio Conte’s notorious pre-season programme, in the face of stern competition, was put into place during a spell of 30C heat in Seoul. Tottenham had trained for two hours and then, cajoled by the fitness coach, Gian Piero Ventrone, were told to run 42 lengths of the World Cup Stadium pitch. Anyone whose June had been eaten into by international duty was let off with a mere 30; Ryan Sessegnon was not among those blessed with such fortune.

“I knew it was going to be tough but it was worse than I thought,” he says in reference to the blistering intensity demanded during Spurs’ preparations. “Those 42 runs in Korea, the amount of running, it was crazy. I wasn’t being sick like a few of the players were, but I was on my knees.”

Perhaps it worked because Sessegnon has begun the season standing tall. His first Premier League goal for Tottenham also opened the club’s account for 2022-23 and offset what had been a sticky start against Southampton. They won at a canter from there and their left wing-back was relentless: Sessegnon looked every inch a wide all-rounder from Conte’s model and could feel the summer regimen paying off.

“Definitely [fitness] makes a difference,” he says. “When I’m on the pitch and feel like I’m in my stride and have the energy to go up and down, you almost feel unstoppable. You feel like you can go past anyone, do anything on the pitch, you really feel yourself.”

There is, famously, no hiding place for a wing-back under Conte. “It’s probably one of the hardest positions in the team at the moment,” Sessegnon says. “He wants you to contribute going forward but defensively as well, so you have to have that engine to go up and down. That’s one of my strong suits but it can always be improved.”

Perhaps the moment when Sessegnon ran off Kyle Walker-Peters and planted a stooping far-post header past Gavin Bazunu will go down as an arrival. It would not be before time: he was limited to 21 top-flight outings in his first three seasons after joining from Fulham, albeit one of those campaigns was largely spent on loan at Hoffenheim, and his roar on to the scene as a 16- year-old was in danger of becoming a receding memory.

A year after that, in 2017-18, he was scoring 15 goals in the Championship. But it was only in May that he turned 22 and, after a succession of minor injuries stalled him last time around, there is the sense a corner may have been turned.

“It helps,” he says of breaking his duck. “At the back end of last season I had a little run in the team and I felt part of the team. To start the first game of the season was very good for me and to add my goal to help the team win was great.”

Ryan Sessegnon, pictured at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with some of the youngsters who attended Summer of Spurs, a free activity program being delivered by the Club throughout August to keep local young people engaged during the school holidays.
Ryan Sessegnon, pictured at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with some of the youngsters who are attending “Summer of Spurs”, a free activity program being delivered by the club throughout August to keep local young people engaged during the school holidays. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty Images

Sessegnon has always had the right tools: speed, trickery, an end product, a turbo-powered engine. They have not always been enough to give him a chance and perhaps he felt a sense of deja vu when Ivan Perisic, a Champions League winner and World Cup finalist, arrived from Internazionale in June. Perisic can play in several positions but he would surely have started in Sessegnon’s place had his pre-season activity not been limited by a calf injury.

“I had a different attitude,” Sessegnon says, rejecting the idea that such high-level competition for his place was disspiriting. “I never saw the situation like that. I saw it as a chance for me to improve and get help from him.”

That is what happened last Saturday when Perisic, who replaced Sessegnon in the 66th minute, advised his younger teammate to exploit Walker-Peters’s lack of height and make the run that brought his goal. “That feeling of arriving in the box at just the right time is a priceless feeling,” he says.

More of the same would help reduce the burden on Harry Kane and Spurs’ other forwards and there is little doubt he has it in him. Sessegnon was a striker before the coaches at Fulham realized his running power from him was too good to waste and those instincts have never quite been blunted.

“If you saw the goals I scored at Fulham a lot of them were in and around the box, rebounds, little short finishes. So it helped from when I was younger. I want to get back to doing those kinds of things, following things in, so I can help the team.”

Ryan Sessegnon challenges Kyle Walker-Peters
Sessegnon knows he needs to have the engine to compete both in an attacking and defensive role for Spurs. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Perhaps Chelsea will be next to observe Sessegnon’s refined nose for goal. A meeting of London rivals has already added spice – “Coming through at Fulham it’s in your brain to dislike Chelsea so this game is extra-special for me” – when thoughts turn to the likely identity of his direct opponent.

Reece James is five months older than Sessegnon and the pair are friends, first pitched against one another at age-group levels from under-nine upwards and becoming colleagues in the England squad that won the Uefa Under-19 Championship in 2017.

“You have to say he’s come out on top,” he says of those academy meetings, when Chelsea’s youngsters would often run riot. “I think I know his weaknesses as well but I wo n’t say too much now. He’s a great player, what he’s done for Chelsea and England has been very good, so you can always look at that and it inspires you.”

A meeting as equals at Stamford Bridge could constitute a minor career landmark; further evidence, perhaps, that Sessegnon can make up ground lost on his old rival in the long-term. The battle to keep his place will be formidable: there was a reason for the acquisition of Perisic and, besides, rotation will be necessary even if he manages to see the veteran off. For now, Sessegnon hopes those yards in the legs keep making the difference.

“There are always going to be times when you’re a bit tired, especially early in the season,” he says. “But it’s about the timing of when to arrive and when to get back in. Nobody is superhuman but you can try to be as close as possible to it.”

Whether in the heat of Asia or a sweltering English summer that has little precedent, Conte would expect nothing less.

Ryan Sessegnon was speaking at the Summer of Spurs – a free activity program by the club to keep local young people engaged during the school holidays, promoting health and wellbeing and reducing levels of crime and antisocial behaviour.