Arsenal in the firing line as Alderweireld’s Spurs aim high
Derby is next step in Tottenham’s evolution as club takes on all-comers, defender tells Jim White
According to Toby Alderweireld, the very fact today’s north London derby is not reckoned by the club’s players or supporters to be the most important match of Tottenham’s season is evidence of how far things have developed over the past couple of years.
“It’s a very big game,” he insisted. “But it was also against Inter and last Sunday as well [against Chelsea]. That says something about the evolution of Spurs that it’s not the biggest game of the year. Sure, it’s a very big game, and we know this, and we’re going to do everything we can to get three points.”
Alderweireld was speaking after Mauricio Pochettino’s side kept alive their Champions League qualification hopes with a victory over Inter Milan at Wembley on Wednesday night. It was a significant result.
For much of this season, they had looked finished in the competition. Should their new stadium be open by February, the fear was it would be to showcase Europa League football, rather than the bold assertion that it would be the only place in London to watch Champions League games.
Now, a hard-fought three points to the good, they go into their last group game against Barcelona this month knowing all they need to do is to match the Italians’ result against PSV Eindhoven to ensure passage to the knockout phase.
“Two or three fixtures ago, we didn’t have a chance any more. Now we have it in our own hands, even if it will be difficult,” said Alderweireld. “That’s a credit to the team.”
What particularly impressed the Belgian defender was the manner of the victory. Controlled, disciplined, patient: despite the fact this was a must-win game, there was nothing gung-ho about it. There was no hint of panic, even as the Italian defence seemed to absorb most of the applied pressure. It was, in many ways, a performance that served as the absolute opposite of the clichéd assumption of the Tottenham way. This was anything but “Spurs-y”. “I think defensively we’re getting better and our attacking football again is very good,” Alderweireld reckoned. “The chances we make [are] better. Midfield, we’re doing well. I think we play well as a team; defend as a team, attack as a team. You see our goal [against Inter], it starts from the back. And if we defend we start with Harry Kane.”
Indeed, Pochettino’s all-action approach was exemplified by the difference between the way Kane and his opposite number, Mauro Icardi, set about their business. While Kane ran every channel, closed down every forward incursion, galloped constantly at the opposition defenders, Icardi barely moved out of the centre circle. His job was simply to lurk.
Such a tactical insistence on players sweating for the cause, however, has its consequences. Several of the Tottenham squad returned to duty having reached the latter stages of the World Cup in the summer. There had been little time for rest or recuperation. There can have been little surprise, therefore, when Spurs started the season slowly. Alderweireld maintained, however, that any hint of tiredness has been expunged; output is now coming close to meeting expectation in the dressing room.
“We are the most critical persons of our own performance,” he said. “Now, at this moment, I think we’re doing very well – but I think we can improve. And even if we go on doing well, we can improve. If we go bad, we can improve.
“I think we’re calm. We know we have to do the same thing as the last couple of years and [then] we get good results.” The continuity of their processes, he argues, allows them to take on the variety of challenges facing them. Arsenal today, for instance, will offer a very different opposition to Luciano Spalletti’s careful, risk-averse, defensive Inter. Unai Emery’s Arsenal side, after all, are playing the kind of positive, direct football that many of their fans despaired of ever seeing again in the latter stages of the Arsene Wenger era.
For Alderweireld in particular, there is no chance of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being as economical in their effort as Icardi. They will be constantly moving, to the point when at times he will need eyes in the back of his head. Not that he is remotely alarmed.
“I think for the last two games for sure, against very good teams we got to a good level and showed we can compete with everybody,” he said. “What we can take from these games into the Arsenal game is our attitude, our mentality.
“Always try to press, attack. And if not we stay compact like [against Inter], don’t concede a lot of chances. We go [to the Emirates] to win and hopefully we do. And if we do, we go on. And if we don’t, we go on.
“We try to think about our own game and improve because I think our game is improving.”
‘Our goal against Inter starts from the back. If we defend, we start with Kane’
Total football: Toby Alderweireld is confident Tottenham have the qualities to take on any challenge, including the threat of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (left)