Toby Alderweireld confirmed his £11.5 million transfer from Atletico Madrid and his arrival will change the dynamic of our back line.
A summer on from signing four players to bolster our defence, restructuring our back line once again seems to be the brief given to newly hired Paul Mitchell.
So far he is going about it in a much more pragmatic way than his predecessors. The players we’ve signed are more system guys rather than individuals that have impressive stats or are big names. The arrival of Toby Alderweireld endorses this once more.
The Belgian international has a number of key strengths that will help change our back line and fit in with what Mauricio Pochettino wants from his defenders. Alderweireld is comfortable on the ball; he can switch the play over distance; he is quick over the ground; able to defend when pulled out in to wide areas and a good open field tackler. All of these are qualities required to operate in Mauricio Pochettino’s system from his centre backs.
What’s more, his versatility to play and cover a number of positions will help out our defence that struggled with injuries, especially in the full back positions, last year.
Comfortable on the ball
A player that can naturally operate in a number of positions, Toby Alderweireld is extremely comfortable on the ball. This is required across our back line, but particularly from those in the centre back spots, as they are often the ones who get our attack moving.
Mauricio Pochettino has our centre backs split wide when our goalkeeper has the ball and they are expected to take it from him and be the first phase of moving it forward. This requires them to not only be able to shift it over great distance between themselves split either side of the penalty area, but also in to the defensive midfielder or out to the highly positioned full backs.
We had a first hand look at Alderweireld’s ball distribution when Southampton visited the Lane last season.
Ronald Koeman asks similar things of his centre backs to Pochettino. We can see how Toby Alderweireld finds his centre back partner Jose Fonte (1) and how he moves the ball out to Ryan Bertrand playing high up at left back (2). What’s more we can see a big reason why Paul Mitchell would’ve scouted him, for both Saints and us. This is his ability to switch play with balls played across the field all the way to the other flank (3).
Switches in play
Switches in play are key from defensive players in Mauricio Pochettino’s system as it quickly moves or repositions the ball to create a new attacking angle. The problem we’ve had under Pochettino’s guidance is that we’ve not had players that can do this reliably or accurately on a consistent basis.
The arrival of Toby Alderweireld should address this problem, as the Belgian is adept in moving the ball from one side to the other. He also adds another dynamic that you can see from the graphic above. As he moves up the field, he is also looking for more aggressive vertical passes, which force the tempo in a different way.
Last season I often criticised the team for not moving the ball quickly enough. Bringing in Toby Alderweireld is a good move from a system point of view to address this problem in the first stages of possession.
Ability to defend in wide areas
With Mauricio Pochettino looking to force the tempo, he pushes his full backs on. This means that if the ball is lost and the players in our midfield pivot are unable to cover, then the centre backs need to be able to defend in wide areas.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the final home game of last season. We can see how Federico Fazio was dragged out to the flanks in order to cover his full back going forward. On the right he makes interceptions (diamonds) and tackles (crosses). When pulled out to the left, his unnatural side, he makes an error (blue triangle) that leads to a Hull shot.
Being comfortable at right back, Toby Alderweireld is used to defending out on the flank. So, being dragged out in to wide areas should be no problem for him when he is deployed as a centre back. He has good speed to cover the ground and is also a good open field tackler in 1v1 situations.
Being able to play as a centre back, but also at right back or in central midfield, Toby Alderweireld also provides alternative options and positional cover.
Last season we struggled at right back when Kyle Walker was out and Eric Dier had to fill in. Dier is a decent option, but looks like a centre back masquerading as a full back. He has a decent cross, but doesn’t have the necessary speed or athleticism to get high up the pitch to provide it often enough on the overlap.
This is where Toby Alderweireld can fill in if Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier are unavailable. The Belgian has good speed in order to motor forward and overlap the wide player on his side to provide crosses from higher up the pitch.
Compare where Toby Alderweireld delivers the ball from when he was played at right back against Hull to where Eric Dier does against the same opposition.
Dier does deliver a good cross, just as he did for Harry Kane in our final game against Everton, but note the location of where he is when playing the ball. Just like against Hull above, again it is from a very deep location.
To supply good quality crosses from this deep is commendable, it isn’t easy, but a higher percentage and more dangerous balls in are delivered from higher up the pitch, closer to their target.
Toby Alderweireld Weaknesses
Whilst Toby Alderweireld has a number of strengths, he does have some weaknesses to his game.
Lack of Aerial prowess
Alderweireld’s main weakness is in the air. He is a shade over six feet tall, but can be overpowered by larger centre forwards.
Some don’t like stats, but the Belgian won just 53% of his aerial duels last season. This is ok for a centre back, but down on where he should be.
By way of comparison the Premier League’s meanest defence, Chelsea, saw John Terry and Gary Cahill winning 75% and 74% of their aerial duels. Amongst our centre backs, Federico Fazio, as you’d expect, wins a healthy 73%, Jan Vertonghen 68% and Eric Dier 64%.
So, Toby Alderweireld does and will need to improve in this area. He has a decent leap for someone of his size, but needs to work on his starting position and the timing of his jump, as this is what often sees him get in trouble.
How Toby Alderweireld will change the Spurs defence
Toby Alderweireld is an excellent addition to our back line, which will immediately start to shore up our leaky defence.
He will provide a player that is good at moving the ball forward quicker than what we have, speeding up the pace of our transition from defence in to attack. He is also a very good ground defender, especially when pulled out in to wide areas or when having to deal with danger in the open field or a 1v1 situation.
His recovery speed is also very good and he has raced back to make a number of goal line clearances during his career. If he can improve his aerial prowess then we will have a seriously improved defence this season.