Tottenham 2017-18 Player Preview: Toby Alderweireld

SWANSEA, WALES - APRIL 05: Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Liberty Stadium on April 5, 2017 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
SWANSEA, WALES - APRIL 05: Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Liberty Stadium on April 5, 2017 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images) /
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Our player-by-player analysis of Tottenham’s defense pushes forward with a bit about what to expect from Toby Alderweireld next season.

The Belgian never looked more crucial to Tottenham’s chances than he did last season — thanks in large part to an injury that kept him out for nearly two months in the autumn.

Spurs stalled out over that stretch, and not necessarily in the way you would expect. With Eric Dier stepping up alongside Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham didn’t lose an ounce of defensive acumen.

Alderweireld’s absence was felt instead in areas higher up the pitch. Suddenly the different phases of play — defense, possession, attack — felt disconnected, as if someone had snapped some connective cable off at its root.

Which is precisely what happened. Alderweireld is supremely talented in defense, there’s no denying that, but his skills there are well covered by Dier and Vertonghen. He sets himself apart from his peers when he is in possession however.

Both Vertonghen and Dier complete more passes per game — averaging out to a little above 60 per 90 minutes according to WhoScored, compared to Alderweireld’s 53. What sets Alderweireld apart though is exactly how he’s passing the ball.

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Mauricio Pochettino favors a patient build up of possession routed through defense, into midfield or outside to the full-backs and eventually culminating somewhere immediately in front of the opposition’s goal. It’s a patient, reliable process that requires a good deal of coordination and players — like Mousa Dembélé or Christian Eriksen — who are either comfortable with the ball at their feet or know how to get the ball into dangerous positions quickly and efficiently.

What Alderweireld offers is the ever-present threat of a Plan B. While he participates in that build up play, his specialty is a long diagonal ball that bypasses the midfield and reliably finds its target farther up the pitch. Indeed, Alderweireld led the league in accurate long passes from centre-backs with more than 10 appearances, notching 7.3 per 90 minutes on average.

With players like Dele Alli or Heung-min Son in the side, this is an incredibly potent weapon. It doesn’t result in assists, but it does represent the cleanest and most deadly route from point A to point B. Opponents can’t push up, and can’t leave any member of Tottenham’s attack unmarked, for fear that Alderweireld will unleash his artillery as soon as possession is reclaimed.

Indeed, Alderweireld’s value here is almost identical to that of Luka Modrić when he featured regularly in Spurs’ midfield. The Croatian maestro operated from farther up the pitch, but was no less reliant on long cross-field passes. In his final season with Spurs before moving to Real Madrid, he registered 7.7 such passes per 90 — not too far off what Alderweireld contributes.

Far from defying Pochettino’s high pressing tactics, such passes might actually be its purest expression. What else is an accurate long ball but the most lethal act of transition possible?

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It stands to reason, then, that Dier himself found the value in such passes when he got fielded on the wide right of a back three in the latter half of Spurs’ season. By the end of the term he averaged 6.3 accurate long balls per 90, making him the second most prolific centre-back in the Premier League in that regard.

Even as Dier attempts to emulate his success, there is still no debating that Alderweireld is one of the best defenders in the league. He is vital in a way that most centre-backs simply can’t be, stretching his influence from back to front along the pitch.