Alder­weireld: derby is big but no longer our big­gest game

More high- profi le matches are a mea­sure of Spurs’ progress, the de­fender tells David Hyt­ner

The Observer - Sport - - Football Premier League -

It has long been a part of the pre- sea­son rit­ual. Tot­ten­ham’s play­ers and sup­port­ers will scan the fi xture list and, first and fore­most, cir­cle the derby against Arse­nal. It is doubt­ful whether it will ever change, be­cause no op­po­nent can stir the same depth of feel­ing as the old en­emy.

But these days, there is a big­ger pic­ture at play and Spurs folk have other high­light­ing to do, tak­ing in top- four Premier League du­els and de­ci­sive Cham­pi­ons League dates. The last week or so has seen the do­mes­tic visit of Chelsea and a Euro­pean one from In­ter­nazionale. To­day’s show­down at the Emi­rates Sta­dium has lurked in the back­ground – at least un­til now.

“It’s a very big game but so was In­ter on Wed­nes­day and so was Chelsea last Sat­ur­day,” Toby Alder­weireld says. “That says some­thing about the evo­lu­tion of Spurs. The derby is not the big­gest game of the year, al­though it’s a very big game and we know this. We’re go­ing to do ev­ery­thing we can to get three points.”

The bal­ance of north- Lon­don power is a peren­nial dis­cus­sion and Spurs can point to hav­ing fi nished above Arse­nal in each of the last two sea­sons, hav­ing been be­low them for the pre­vi­ous 22. Top team in the cap­i­tal last time out t, , they are cur­rently three points bet­ter er off than Arse­nal.

Yet when Alder­weireld der­weireld charts Tot­ten­ham’s progress, gress, both over the course of this sea­son ason and, more gen­er­ally, since Mauri­cio ri­cio Po­chet­tino took charge in 2014, the de­fender prefers to fo­cus on in­ter­nal rnal mark­ers. Chief among them is the he men­tal­ity – which is Po­chet­tino’s ob­ses­sion. bses­sion.

Spurs have won on six in a row in all com­pe­ti­tions, with the t he 3- 1 vic­tory against Chelsea the most im­pres­sive. The 1- 0 win against ainst In­ter was eye­catch­ing in a dif­fer­ent er­ent way, a tri­umph of pa­tience and re­silience, and it has all sug­gested d that af­ter a sea­son of prob­lems – some off the fi eld, linked to the de­layed new sta­dium – the team have re­dis­cov­ered ed their best form.

Alder­weireld ( right) dis­agrees, partly be­cause ause he can never be sat­isfi ed. It is a mind­set he be­lieves must per­me­ate the dress­ing room. “We don’t feel we are hit­ting our best,” he says. “We are the most crit­i­cal per­sons of our own per­for­mance. A lot has been said about the sta­dium and the e pitch at Wem­b­ley, and I think we’re e do­ing very well but we can im­prove. . And even if we go well, we can im­prove rove fur­ther.”

Alder­weireld does ac­cept the Chelsea and In­ter vic­to­ries have “showed we can com­pete with any­body ”. The team are “mak­ing steps” and the big­gest one, he says, has been the re­turn of at­tack­ing co­he­sion, par­tic­u­larly against Chelsea.

“We’re play­ing good foot­ball now and be­fore was maybe dif­fer­ent,” Alder­weireld says. “Foot­ball can ask for other things, like strength and dig­ging out re­sults. That’s foot­ball as well. Some­times it’s diffi cult. Some­times, in the past, we’d play well but if we didn’t play well, we didn’t get the re­sults. Now, if we don’t play well, we’re still de­fend­ing very well.

“De­fen­sively, we’re get­ting bet­ter, and also in terms of at­tack­ing foot­ball, as we saw against In­ter. We play well as a team, de­fend­ing and at­tack­ing as a team. Our goal against In­ter started from the back. And if we de­fend, we start with Harry Kane .”

Alder­weireld’s per­sonal evo­lu­tion has been an in­ter­est­ing sideshow. The 29- year- old en­dured a night­mar­ish sec­ond half to last sea­son, when a ham­string in­jury set him back. He strug­gled to re­gain his place and it felt as though his prospects were harmed by the im­passe in ne­go­ti­a­tions over a con­tract.

Mind­ful that he could leave for a knock down £ 25m at the end of this sea­son, the club were open to of­fers in the sum­mer. Manch­ester United were heav­ily linked but there was no move­ment and Alder­weireld has bounced back . Af­ter a suc­cess­ful World Cup with Bel­gium, he has started 12 of Tot­ten­ham’s 13 league games and four of fi ve in the Champ Cham­pi­ons League.

Not many play­ers hav have fallen from favour un­der Po­chet­tino only to re­turn on a reg­u­lar ba­sis but i it would be a sur­prise if Alder­weirel Alder­weireld did not sit tight to test his re­lease clause and a big­ger one if a ri­val club did not meet it. Will he still be at Spurs next sea­son? Is it now or never for him in terms of win­ning some­thing at th the club? Tot­ten­ham re­main w within strik­ing dis­tance of the lead­ers, leader Manch­ester City, but no­body seems s to con­sider them ti­tle con­tenders, mainly be­cau be­cause of City’s form. That m might change if they pro­duce produ a state­ment vic­tory at Arse­nal . Alder­weireld, how­ever, ho is pre­oc­cu­pied sim­ply by push­ing his lim­its and those of his team­mates. t

“We’re not both­ered what peo­ple think,” Alder­weire Alder­weireld says. “We just like to stick to our own per­for­mances and try to imp im­prove. Even if we have bad re­sults, we’re we do­ing the same things, be­cause we w know that’s the way to win. There a are good fun­da­men­tals and we go to t Arse­nal to win. They are pretty dif­fer­ent dif un­der Unai Emery – good at­tack­ing at and de­fen­sively more sorted . We have to be on top form to beat them th but we’re con­fi­dent.” confi dent.”

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