How ice-cool Alderweireld is helping Spurs overcome the ghosts of their past
On the second Saturday of the Premier League season, Tottenham held a 2-0 lead over Stoke City at White Hart Lane. Late in the second half, with no obvious danger and without any necessity, Toby Alderweireld hauled Spanish forward Joselu to the ground inside the penalty box and invited referee Bobby Madley to point to the spot.
It was a senseless error and it changed the game. Marko Arnautovic's successful conversion and a late Mame Diouf goal allowed Stoke to head home with a draw. All the good work had been undone and three points had shrunk to one in the blink of an eye. How typically Tottenham.
Same old Spurs?
Behind Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino's side have the second-best defensive record in the division and have passed through Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea without defeat
It was irritatingly familiar. Alderweireld had been signed that summer after an impressive season at Southampton. Having arrived from Atletico Madrid on loan, he built a reputation for himself on the south coast as a stylish, versatile defender who managed to go through the entire 2014/15 campaign without being credited with a defensive error. Yet here he was in only his second game for his new club, making the kind of unfathomable mistake for which Spurs have become known in the modern era.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Alderweireld had been in North London for just over a month and already he had been infected by that implausible vulnerability which afflicts anyone who wears a Tottenham shirt.
But it was a false dawn - in a good way. It's been four months since that Stoke game and Tottenham haven't lost a single Premier League during that period. Behind Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino's side have the second-best defensive record in the division and have passed through Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea without defeat.
A year into the job, the Argentinian is cultivating something which feels different somehow. Spurs are an impressive composite of hard-work, flair, and organisation and the cultural change overseen by Pochettino represents as dramatic a shift as many supporters have witnessed during their lifetime. And Alderweireld has rebounded from his early August blues to be part of the bedrock of that movement.
Rock at the back
Singling a player out from this squad seems contradictory given their cohesion, but the Belgian's arc in North London is actually perfectly reflective of this period of change. He represents emotional resilience instead of fragility, composure rather than panic and his calm, icy-veined defending is a welcome departure from the chaotic Tottenham norm.
When the club confirmed his £14 million transfer in early July, his literal value was understood. Alderweireld had shown himself to be an excellent aerial defender who read the game well and who possessed the heightened ball-playing ability that has become a prerequisite for modern centre-halves.
That his pathway into the game was almost identical to that of Jan Vertonghen, both having graduated through the Beerschot and Ajax academies to play alongside each other in the Amsterdam Arena and for the Belgian national team, was also very convenient.
That chemistry has added value to the Tottenham defence, with the more stable Alderweireld complementing the tactically aggressive Vertonghen, but the defensive reliability has bled into other parts of the team. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Pochettino's first-choice full-back tandem, have both improved without the ball this season and Eric Dier's reinvention as a viable holding midfielder has been hastened by the reliability behind him.
Those centre-halves have an attacking purpose, too. Disregarding Vertonghen's ambitious forays upfield, the collective value of their distribution is very high - Alderweireld has an expansive, accurate passing range which diversifies his partner's short-range work. Tottenham are a side who rely on moving the ball quickly, so having two centre-backs capable of bypassing high-pressing opponents and reliably moving possession upfield in a variety of ways holds a clear value.
Cool and composed
If Spurs have unfortunately become known as the side who are always likely to let their fans down, Alderweireld is part of the present day response to that
But Alderweireld is also the product of a highly desirable set of intangibles, all of which were referenced prior to his signing and all of which have silently fuelled this initial run of form. He is emotionally resilient, as his recovery from the Stoke debacle attests to, but also plays the game in a cold-blooded way.
If Spurs have unfortunately become known as the side who are always likely to let their fans down, Alderweireld is part of the present day response to that. He has that broad-shouldered swagger which is hard to describe, but which is still overwhelmingly apparent in everything he does.
That's been a theme throughout his career. In the many online scout reports which were written on him while he was a developing player, almost all of them reference his character or presence. Understandably, because his early Eredivisie performances were apparently framed by the same teflon fearlessness which defines his game today. Re-watch his goal-scoring performance against AC Milan in the San Siro in 2010: even prior to turning 21, he looked like someone who believed that he belonged right at the top of the game and who wasn't intimidated by storied grounds or big reputations.
That's a characteristic upon which his confident style of play seems to be built, but also a quality which a succession of managers have recognised in him. Ronald Koeman described him as a "strong influence" at St Mary's and also noted how his time on the south coast had helped other members of the squad.
Diego Simeone, as hard-nosed a figure as the game has produced in recent times, spoke effusively of the player's character when he left Atletico Madrid. Marc Wilmots, manager of a Belgian national team which includes Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, claimed last month that Alderweireld is the first name on his team-sheet.
Tottenham's new scouting model has been rightly praised for its role in reshaping Mauricio Pochettino's squad and, certainly, Paul Mitchell will likely prove to be as valuable an employee as the manager he serves.
But, with Alderweireld, maybe Mitchell showed that his true talent lies not in identifying under-appreciated, under-priced talent, but in recruiting players who possess so many of the emotional characteristics which the club have traditionally lacked in recent years. He is a beneath-the-skin kind of recruiter, the one who appreciates that teams aren't constructed by combining technical attributes alone, but by bonding those components with personality mastic.
Superficially, he's a gifted and stylish defender, but the union between him and Tottenham is more than just cosmetically convenient. Alderweireld is a winner; he is a steel fist inside a velvet glove, and a player who embodies all the qualities which his new club have needed for a long time.