Toby Alderweireld’s departure from Tottenham Hotspur may well fix one of Mauricio Pochettino’s biggest problems at a stroke.
The Belgium international has a £25million release clause in his contract and doubts persist over whether the defender will remain north London beyond the summer.
Indeed, Alderweireld has spent a total of four years in the capital and has emerged as a genuinely world-class centre-back.
But this season he has been at the centre of one of Pochettino’s biggest problems.
The Argentine has continually rotated between a back three and a back four throughout the campaign.
When playing the former, he has partnered Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez with Alderweireld. When using the latter, he has cycled through the three and has occasionally used Juan Foyth too.
It should be no surprise, then, that the uncertainty surrounding the defence has adversely affected the club.
This season, Spurs have conceded 34 goals in the Premier League in 31 games. In 2017-18, Spurs conceded 36 in 38 games. Indeed, they have not kept a clean sheet domestically since February in a 1-0 win over Newcastle.
Since then, Spurs have let in one against Leicester City and Arsenal, as well as two versus Burnley, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool.
Across the club’s last five games, they have played a back three, three times – in the 2-1 losses to Liverpool and Burnley and the 1-1 draw with Arsenal. In those games, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Sanchez played together twice, but Alderweireld was not involved versus Burnley.
In the two games in which they used a back four, Alderweireld and Sanchez played together against Chelsea but the Belgian was replaced by Vertonghen against Southampton. Alderweireld was not even in the squad that day.
Last season, Spurs utilised a centre-back pairing of Sanchez and Vertonghen because of Alderweireld’s injury-riddled campaign.
The defender missed 23 Premier League games in a row through injury. In that time, Spurs lost just four times.
They beat the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in that time period, and also recorded Champions League wins over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund without Alderweireld on the pitch. Indeed, he sustained his injury against the Spanish giants and lasted a mere 24 minutes. When he was substituted, the two sides were level at 0-0. Spurs won 3-1.
Football FanCast quizzed Football.London’s Tottenham correspondent, Alasdair Gold, on this very issue.
He said: “Last year, Pochettino may have been weirdly helped, if that’s such a way of describing Toby Alderweireld’s injury, but Alderweireld’s injury meant he had to play Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez. They formed a very solid partnership and they knew what each other were doing and when it went to a back three, it was purely Eric Dier coming back into that back three. It was very settled.
“This year, he looks like a man who is thinking ‘I have to play Alderweireld, because he’s class’ but it’s now giving him an issue with Sanchez, who Pochettino absolutely adores, so he’s now got a thing of ‘I really want to play a back three but I can’t do it every match’ and it’s messy. You can see it in the goals conceded tally.”
Of course, much of the furore surrounding his future revolves around the asking price. Alderweireld is not a £25m defender; he is worth at least double that in the current transfer market.
And many believe that whichever club triggers the clause and acquires his signature will receive a genuine bargain. That may be true.
But, by the same token, Alderweireld departing will allow Pochettino to properly bed in a central defensive partnership that has already proved its worth in north London.
It is that rarest of things: A win-win situation.