Toby Alderweireld has reached something of a crossroads in his Tottenham Hotspur career.
Firmly established as the best defender in England across the previous two years, a seemingly innocuous hamstring injury sustained in Spurs’ Champions League group stage clash with Real Madrid put the Belgium international on the treatment table. Since that fresh November night, Alderweireld has not played once in the Premier League.
Alderweireld is the kind of player who simply loves to play every game. He declared himself fit for the north London derby with Arsenal in February, having played 90 minutes in an FA Cup tie against Newport County. But Mauricio Pochettino omitted him from the squad altogether against the Gunners, and then refused to allow Alderweireld to travel to Turin for the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus.
A year ago this would have been unthinkable – Alderweireld was the club’s best defender, and was absolutely vital to any chances of silverware, domestically and in Europe.
Yet, since Alderweireld's injury, Spurs' defensive heart has not skipped a beat. Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez stifled Cristiano Ronaldo et al as Spurs beat Madrid 3-1, and they have also seen off Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund without Alderweireld, and also made a stirring comeback from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Juventus in Italy.
Vertonghen and Sanchez are now safely ensconced as Pochettino’s first-choice centre-backs, and form suggests that the Argentine should not change his stance. Alderweireld’s national team partner Vertonghen is in the form of his life, and has eclipsed his compatriot to become arguably his club’s second-most important player, only behind Harry Kane.
He makes more tackles per 90 minutes than Alderweireld – 1.63 to 1.33 – and also wins more duels, makes more clearances and also wins far more aerial challenges.
This has led to intense speculation that Pochettino has approved the possible sale of Alderweireld this summer. The 28-year-old is in his prime, but has yet to reach a contract agreement with the club, and ears have been pricked in Manchester.
|Aerial duel success||52%||67%||72%|
|Errors leading to shots||3||4||3|
Jose Mourinho needs an authoritative centre-back to partner the imposing Eric Bailly, when he returns to fitness, with neither Chris Smalling nor Phil Jones delivering on the early potential they showed when they were signed.
It is unsurprising that Mourinho has been drawn to Alderweireld, who is excellent in his distribution and remarkably calm in the challenge. He is something of a contradiction, though. He would markedly improve United’s back-line, but his absence has not weakened Spurs, who are currently in the midst of a 16-game unbeaten run across all competitions.
Jones and Smalling should both be expendable to make way for the talent that Alderweireld so clearly possesses. The only areas in which the two England internationals outstrip Alderweireld come in interceptions – Smalling has 153 to the Spurs man’s 95 – and in aerial duels, with both Smalling and Jones more willing to mix it up in the air. That can be partially explained by Spurs’ high press, as they aim to win the ball back on the floor, and also by the fact Alderweireld is often deployed as the covering centre-back, allowing Vertonghen to jump and contest aerial duels.
The Belgian pair have developed a partnership not too dissimilar to that forged by Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford, and Mourinho must covet such a defensive tandem.
Bailly’s struggles with injury this term have forced Mourinho’s hand in regards to picking Smalling and Jones regularly, but the Ivorian remains the best defender on United’s books, and buying him a regular, world-class partner would go a long way to solidifying the club’s hopes of reining in Manchester City next season.
Extracting Alderweireld from Spurs will not be easy, despite Pochettino’s apparent acquiescence, given the famous negotiating tactics of Daniel Levy, who is sure to want a big fee, particularly after Virgil Van Dijk’s eye-watering £75 million move to Liverpool.
The deal may well work for both parties, though. Pochettino will be given a lump of cash to reinvest in the Spurs squad, and both Sanchez and Vertonghen will have room to breathe as a partnership, while United will acquire the only truly world-class central defender on the market right now.
It is bizarre to claim that Spurs losing such a player could strengthen them, but they have put together a winning run without him, and even beat United 2-0 at Wembley in dominant fashion in January.
In that game, Jones scored an own goal. Mourinho won’t have to witness many more mistakes like that if he can make Alderweireld a United player.