When Tottenham accepted a £50million offer for Kyle Walker in July, a substantial section of supporters were hardly disappointed to see the back of the England international.
Often accused of error-prone defending and inconsistent technique at the other end, some even hailed it Daniel Levy’s greatest piece of business as Spurs chairman – better than the world-record fee he secured for Gareth Bale, better than the £5million swoop for Dele Alli, better than the deal to rebuild White Hart Lane.
Said it before and I'll say it again Kyle Walker is shockin. Great business by Spurs #MCIEVE
— Stephen Bruton (@SBruts) August 21, 2017
Tottenham sold Kyle Walker to City but guess what?Trippier is better& Spurs will def finish above City
— Joel Or Jhay FC (@donbabajhay) July 14, 2017
Looking at our normal starting 11 Kyle Walker was the weak link so not too fussed about him leaving. £50m is great. Great player.
— Christian Blackman (@chrisdb94) July 14, 2017
We sold walker for £50m and if we sign Aurier for £23m that could be up there with the best bit of business in football
— Dan Shiels (@DanShiels10) August 22, 2017
Just five months down the line though, as Walker prepares to face his former club for the first time since trading north London for the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City will have few regrets about parting with such a ginormous fee for a full-back so many Tottenham fans had mixed feelings towards.
Barring a one-match suspension and a rest against Swansea on Wednesday night, Walker has featured in every minute of a City campaign that has seen just two points dropped, set a record for consecutive top flight wins and already had Pep Guardiola’s side mooted as arguably greatest attacking team to ever grace English football.
Suddenly, £50million seems like a pretty small price to pay – in terms of points, City are already 18 ahead of a team they finished one place and six points behind last season, a team which will almost certainly have to settle for fourth place at best this term.
While that can’t all be attributed to Walker alone, Ederson and emergency left-back Fabian Delph are the only other changes to City’s strongest starting XI from last season and few Premier League right-backs have proved so effective going forward thus far in 2017/18. Walker ranks first throughout the English top flight’s No.2s for passes and assists, fourth for key passes and eighth for successful dribbles.
But that impact really shouldn’t surprise Tottenham or the fans who, in truth, showed a lack of respect for a player who had made over 200 appearances for the club when they celebrated his departure like a lottery win during the summer.
There are two simple reasons City willingly parted with £50million. Firstly, a lack of dynamism on the defensive flanks was City’s most fundamental flaw last season. Secondly, as the steady transition from full-backs to wing-backs in English football has shown, wide defenders are now amongst the most important players on the pitch. City coughed up the big bucks to stay at the tactical forefront of the beautiful game, all the more efficiently by signing a right-back with proven Premier League pedigree, but it was Tottenham who played an equal hand in allowing them to do so.
Of course, there are convincing justifications for Tottenham’s decision to sell too. Mauricio Pochettino claimed in his recent book that he felt Walker had no more room to further improve, something that may well be the case at the age of 27. The club’s modest wage structure was undoubtedly a factor as well, alongside allegations that Walker asked to leave, and Spurs knew they already had a ready-made replacement in Kieran Trippier, Walker’s understudy during the two previous campaigns.
But there was also a strange arrogance about the sale; an oversight of how significant Walker was to the team, of how selling to a Premier League rival only creates a wider gap in quality and suggests a lack of ambition, of how Tottenham aren’t necessarily bigger than the players who believe they deserve competitive wages.
Rather than fighting hell and earth to keep a player revered outside of north London as one of the best right-backs in Europe, it was almost as if Spurs and their fans felt they were better off without Walker, and that he’d soon be found out by the piercing, scrutinising microscope footballers with such price-tags are inevitably placed under.
The ramifications of that arrogance are already clear on the pitch. Trippier has produced as many assists as Walker this season, more key passes and more successful crosses, but his failure to mimic the now-City defender’s dynamism in big games has already cost Spurs dearly.
They’ve taken just three points from a possible twelve against top six rivals this season and the absence of athleticism down the right flank has been one of the biggest differences – particularly on Wembley’s vast pitch.
Walker averaged more dribbles, more tackles and more interceptions against top six opposition during 2016/17 than Trippier has so far this term, which is telling of how the latter has failed to provide the same relentless energy and physicality – the same overlapping outlet on the counter-attack.
No doubt, summer signing Serge Aurier is more befitting of the Walker mould. Although his opportunities to prove that in big Premier League games have been limited to just one appearance at Old Trafford, he’s a fast and physical wing-back as well.
And yet, signing Aurier almost defeats the purpose of cashing in on Walker in the first place. Signed for £23million, Spurs have earned just £27million from making a theoretical title rival infinitely stronger, from parting with arguably the best right-back in the Premier League for one who has never set foot in English football before, is just two-and-a-half years younger than Walker and has already shown similar potential for being a defensive liability.
If the ultimate justification for selling Walker was the substantial profit made on a player who was incredibly unlikely to sign a new contract after telling Pochettino he wanted to leave, it’s clearly an exceptionally short-sighted one. Surely a club with ambitions to keep Premier League titles would keep a player of Walker’s importance out of the hands of their rivals at any cost.
But the most significant impact of Walker’s departure will likely become most prevalent in the coming transfer windows. It was almost a case of Levy trying to set an example amongst the rest of the squad that no player is indispensable, that only those fully committed to the cause would stay and that the club wouldn’t simply buckle to wage demands – as if the north London outfit are such a special club, they’re immune to the inevitabilities of a capitalist economy. The Tottenham chairman may well feel he claimed some sort of moral victory, but the players’ perspective will now be markedly different.
After all, Walker’s punishment for kicking up a fuss was being sold to a club who pay him more, who play better football and who have a significantly greater chance of silverware. Why wouldn’t players like Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Dele Alli, all of whom have created doubts over their futures in north London in one way or another in recent months, do the same, knowing they have the talent to attract a similar calibre of side? If anything, Walker’s success at City is a prime example of why they should dispute the club’s wage structure, why they should kick up a fuss and why they should question Tottenham’s level of ambition. The two outcomes are either the improved contract they feel they deserve, or a move to a bigger team.
It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction Walker receives this Saturday; there are still sizable chunks of Spurs supporters who think Tottenham took City for a ride during the summer. But while City and Walker will have few regrets about the deal as they continue their ascension towards being arguably the greatest team of the Premier League era, Tottenham will surely recognise the £50million gained has only pushed them back towards the realms of fourth-place contention they appeared to have escaped when Walker was in the side.
They’ve played a pivotal hand in making City such an irresistible footballing force while showing their own lack of ambition, and Walker’s departure could soon prove to be the first step in unravelling what has been a fantastically entertaining, title-contending Tottenham team over the last few seasons.
The short-term profit simply doesn’t justify the long-term ramifications.
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