This feels frustratingly familiar. A first-choice defender once again sold to a rival in Manchester, once again leaving Tottenham to scratch around for a cheaper, less polished replacement. For months, Toby Aldeweireld’s departure has loomed. The mood has largely been one of restrained anger at the club’s failure to meet the player’s demands. But, as the inevitable draws closer, you start to imagine a Tottenham without one half of their immovable Belgian rear-guard. That is when the sadness sets in.
It is not a dystopia that is difficult to imagine – Spurs have seen precious little of Alderweireld since his injury against Real Madrid at the start of November. Even with the 29-year-old fully recovered, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sánchez have been the two names we came to expect on the team sheet. Should recruitment go as planned, the setback will be minimalised. For over two years though, whether complemented by a third centre-back or not, Alderweireld and Vertonghen were the constant. The safety-net. It is hard to believe that this partnership that has endured through club and international football was only in full force at Mauricio Pochettino’s side for two years.
The basis for so much of Tottenham’s rapid upward trajectory from Europa League regulars to title challengers, it feels like the pair built a defensive dynasty through decades of supremacy. Beyond the frustration towards Daniel Levy for his reluctance to yield, that is the biggest shame of the whole affair. The Premier League is deprived of one more year of its finest defensive partnership. Tottenham are denied one more year of Alderweireld, the key to the revolution of their identity.
In the campaign before Alderweireld came to White Hart Lane, Spurs conceded 53 goals – the joint-fifth worst record in the league. In the Belgian’s first season, Spurs conceded 35 – the joint-best. In his second season, the record improved further, with Tottenham conceding just 26 times, fewer than any other team in the division. In those first two seasons, Spurs consecutively set the club record for fewest goals conceded in a Premier League season. The story of Alderweireld at Tottenham could be left to those numbers, but his impact merits much more.
His arrival signalled a change of culture at the club. In the previous season, the centre-back position had been dotted with various calamities. The roguish traits of Vlad Chiricheș were continually exposed; Younès Kaboul had lost his legs and his head; and Federico Fazio flitted between promising assurance and total disaster. Vertonghen had been given various partners and was visibly exhausted by the circus surrounding him, his own form unrecognisable from his distinguished debut campaign under André Villas-Boas. How he must have welcomed the sight of his old Ajax companion.
It was hoped that the history the pair shared, and the promise of a non-changing partnership at the back would provide stability. The result was something more – each player thrived off the other, instantly in tune. If one would go tight, the other was ready to sweep around should something go wrong. Should one need an option to get them out of trouble, the other would be on hand to receive the pressure-relieving pass. Alderweireld’s outstanding one-on-one confidence gave Vertonghen the assurance he needed to burst forward in a way unseen since that fine first season of his.
Alderweireld himself would make his own forward ventures with the knowledge that his partner was set in position. The combination fitted naturally, something not seen at Tottenham since Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov’s flicks and turns at the other end of the pitch a decade before. The appreciation for Alderweireld and Vertonghen as a pair was delayed. That is because for those first few months, fans were too consumed with awe from what they had seen of the former to even notice the sizeable improvement inspired in Vertonghen.
Until that season, only one modern defender had been truly worshipped at White Hart Lane. Ledley King earned that reverence for the ease with which he played. Before his knee problems, it was with an unnatural cool that he would pick off passes and terminate forward runs. The injuries only exaggerated how extraordinary it was that he played the game with such comfort. That is exactly what strikes you about Alderweireld.
Those two years were near-faultless. Cut off a through-ball, stride out of defence, feed the midfield. Poke the ball from the toe of a dribbling attacker, stride out of defence, feed the midfield. Rinse. Repeat. The art of defending was so effortless for Alderweireld that it quickly went from the astonishing to the expected due to the consistency with which he pulled it off. He normalised brilliance to the point where we perhaps started to forget he was achieving it. That is the greatest compliment that could be paid to him. He was the catalyst for normalising defensive stability at a club that had long suffered for their insistence on prioritising attacking gallantry.
Then, of course, there is the pass – his pass. If ever there was a trademark move to signify everything about a player, it is Alderweireld’s right-to-left diagonal ball. If you have watched Tottenham enough in the last three years, you can close your eyes and see it. He jogs away from his 18-yard box with the ball, surveys his options. He slows his jog to a walk. One touch to poke the ball out of his feet. One more with the outside of the boot to roll it into the path of his right foot.
Heung-min Son, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Danny Rose, Ben Davies. It does not matter who is out on the left touchline, the result is always the same. It is not the most difficult skill in the game; it is not always a potent weapon. But watching the ball arrow from deep on the right-hand-side over to the left-wing with such routine excellence is one of the most aesthetically pleasing scenes in football.
It is a sight that makes the edge of your mouth curl upwards with satisfaction, because it is the signal that you are watching a team with Toby Alderweireld on the right-side of defence. It is a tragedy that we will not have that anymore.