Why Toby Alderweireld is Tottenham's most important player - and his absence proves it
It's strange to talk of an unbeaten team in such terms, but Tottenham have endured a wobble of sorts since the international break.
A well-rescued point at The Hawthorns seven days ago was the gloss on a missed opportunity and, though a respectable result, their knees buckled badly in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen. The vulnerability isn't hard to track: Mauricio Pochettino's team have looked fragile since Toby Alderweireld was carried off in the 60th minute against West Brom and, though his injury has subsequently proven less serious than initially feared, Spurs travelled to the south coast again without their talismanic centre-halve.
The Belgian is the static element within Pochettino's back-four and, without him, Tottenham are typically instinctive, impulsive and, ultimately, unstable. That fragility nearly saw them behind inside ten minutes against Bournemouth, with Dan Gosling drifting to the goal-line after a poorly defended set-piece, cutting the ball back to Charlie Daniels, and drawing an excellent early save from Hugo Lloris.
Without him, Tottenham are typically instinctive, impulsive and, ultimately, unstable.
It's understandable; Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are an aggresive full-back tandem, Jan Vertonghen a footballing centre-halve whose instinct is to be expressive from deep, and Eric Dier has latterly grown the instincts of a defensive-midfielder. Without Alderweireld, their defence lacks a guiding drum-beat.
But Alderweireld's contribution is typically multi-faceted: an outstanding central defender, certainly, but also one who performs a crucial play-making role within his team's structure. While much of his passing can seem formulaic and high-percentage, he has - since his arrival in the summer of 2015 - allowed Tottenham to progress the ball vertically with great success and speed.
Pochettino may emphasise the need to equip his advanced players with possession as quickly as possible, but the responsibility for doing that lies as much with his back-four as it does his midfield; without Alderweireld's ability to penetrate the middle-third - and without the latent threat of his long-range passing - teams find it relatively easy to box Spurs out of the middle of the pitch and usher them into wider, more crowded areas which are easier to defend. Barring the occasional piece of individual flamboyance or a positional error, it's near impossible to gain a controlling influence under such conditions, or even to generate a flicker of momentum.
So it was in the first-half at the Vitality Stadium: Vertonghen and Dier found themselves passing around rather than through the Bournemouth press and, consequently, shovelling the ball across the pitch rather than up it. They had no effect on their opponents' shape. The Bournemouth players stayed comfortably within their regimented banks and Tottenham's forays into the box were fleeting and unsustained. T
o make the point, the previously incendiary Heung Son Min completed five of his six attempted attacking-third passes, but only one of them occurred in the penalty-box - and all of those passes were backwards. There were no clever angles to work, no raiding runs to feed and his aneamic display was a symptom of how little impact Tottenham had on the game's mood.
Pochettino attempted a creative solution: Mousa Dembele dropped into a deeper position alongside Victor Wanyama to create an additional exit option. After half-time, Walker and Rose had evidently been encouraged to take up far more advanced positions and, where possible, to roam in-field. It was semi-successful. While Tottenham did occupy more advanced areas and their control of the ball did occur higher up the pitch, they failed to convert that territorial advantage into meaningful opportunity.
Vincent Janssen came on to act as an orthodox pivot and Moussa Sissoko gave a short, eventful cameo in place of Dele Alli, but neither were a decisive influence. If anything, Bournemouth were the more threatening and, as Spurs' raids broke down, they counter-attacked with menace.
Since their resurgence under Pochettino, Tottenham have been praised for their ability to withstand injury and suspension. Dembele has already missed plenty of this season, Harry Kane is still recovering from injury and, yet, the team remains unbeaten and previously peripheral players have given pertinent contributions at important times. Given how last season finished, that's especially pleasing.
However, if a goalless draw can ever be truly illustrative of anything, it is that Alderweireld is perhaps the one player Pochettino dare not be without. First-choice centre-backs are of absolute importance and changing a key partnership within any department rarely leads to anything good, but in this instance it appears to have destabilised the entire side.
(Alderweireld's assist for Dele Alli's goal vs. Everton last season - via GIPHY)
Alderweireld has specific defensive attributes which are vital and the balance of his combination with Vertonghen in the literal, protective sense is at the heart of this team's admirable defensive record. But only in his absence is it apparent how far his overall influence stretches: the passing options he brings are fundamental to Tottenham's rhythm and diversity and, whether it's his icy temperament or impressive range of abilities, he appears to infuse this team with a sense of organisation and, on a more rudimentary level, calm. They're intangibles, but they're essential.
Put another way, when he's not on the pitch Tottenham's shoulders appear to sag. They look susceptible and weak. There are more errors, players are more commonly caught out of position, and all the newly-discovered resilience can be seen seeping away. Pochettino's players have become good at seeing games out and securing winning positions. In fact, they have more often than not been the side to snatch points in the shadows of full-time. Not on Saturday.
Spurs lost control over the last ten minutes and were at the mercy of Bournemouth's inability to find a final pass. They might have conceded, possibly could have given away a couple of penalties, and were, by the time it sounded, desperate for the final-whistle. Troublingly, just as they had been in Leverkusen on Tuesday night.
When Leicester City arrive in North London next weekend, Alderweireld will likely have returned to full fitness and be available for selection. But this weekend provided a chilling insight into what life would look like with him. On one hand, that's illustrative of how complete a player he is and how fortunate Spurs are to have him under contract. On the other, it shows how thin the dividing line is between old and new Spurs.