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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

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)

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