As Tottenham overtook Arsenal and continued nipping at Chelsea’s heels, a quiet drama has taken place on the right defensive flank.
It began innocuously enough last weekend, when Mauricio Pochettino named Kieran Trippier to Tottenham’s starting XI despite Kyle Walker being perfectly healthy.
That alone wasn’t enough to raise too many eyebrows. Heung-min Son also started on the opposite flank instead of Ben Davies. It could be reasonably assumed that Pochettino was simply rotating players, perhaps hoping that Trippier and Son’s attacking verve might overcome a Chelsea side weak in wide areas.
Walker’s start mid-week against Crystal Palace seemed to put any questions to bed. Tottenham’s star right-back — one half of the best full-back pair in England — was back where he belonged.
Throughout all of this were persistent rumors that Walker was pushing back on a new contract for the club. He wanted to speak to Pochettino directly. He wanted assurances of the club’s ambition. He wanted — one could easily read between the lines — more money.
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None of this quite seemed cause enough for concern. This kind of thing happens. Hugo Lloris, before signing a new deal last summer, needed reminding of the club’s ambition. So have, undoubtedly, the half dozen other players who put pen to paper this season. The Walker saga would, it was presumed, evaporate soon enough.
By Sunday afternoon it was clear this was more than just the usual give-and-take between player and club though. Pochettino’s lineup for the North London Derby — a crucial fixture, and the penultimate game ever to be played at White Hart Lane — would have to be the strongest possible. And Walker was again on the bench.
The Chelsea match was no fluke then. This wasn’t just normal rotation. Rather, it was a script being flipped. Trippier, once Walker’s clear understudy, now appears to be Pochettino’s go-to for big matches.
There’s clearly some politics going on here. It’s not as if Trippier is suddenly a better option tactically than Walker. The former Burnley man is full of energy and knows how to cross a ball, but still occasionally proves to be a liability in defense.
Walker, in contrast, is blossoming in the midst of his best season yet with Spurs. Along with Danny Rose he was named in the PFA team of the year, and seemed set to be Pochettin’s first choice right-back for years to come.
According to the Independent though, there was a problem. Pochettino evidently doesn’t have faith that Walker is fit enough to start two matches in a week. Hence, he was left out of crucial Champions League ties in the fall and is now being sidelined in big Premier League matches.
In a system like Pochettino’s, fitness and endurance are of paramount importance. He loves players like Christian Eriksen, Eric Dier and Harry Kane in part because they are tireless performers, hardly missing a beat even over densely packed fixture lists. If Walker isn’t up to the same standard it’s certainly believable that Pochettino might react this way.
It’s difficult to parse the timing of this revelation however. Why would all this be reaching a boil right when Walker is rumored to be attracting interest from other clubs? Could it be that Pochettino is merely playing at some tough love here? Perhaps this is all theater, done in hopes of deflating Walker’s ego to the point that he realizes that Spurs are more than just one player.
Whatever the reason, it’s an unexpected drama for the tail end of the season. Fans will hope that it doesn’t distract from a title race that still seems alive with just four games left to play.