Toby Alderweireld showing good early signs of promise

Toby Alderweireld made his Tottenham Premier League debut at Old Trafford, so we take a look at his first start in a Spurs shirt.

Encouraging was the word to describe Toby Alderweireld after his first 90 minutes in a Spurs shirt. Our new arrival from Atletico Madrid slotted nicely in to the back line alongside compatriot Jan Vertonghen, rekindling their Ajax relationship.

There were many good parts to his game and his partnership with Vertonghen overall. There were also a couple of points that need to be worked on.

Comfortable split

The main change in the centre backs this season is just how far wide they are going to split to bring the ball out from the back. Last term we saw our centre backs split, but nothing like the extremes that we saw at Old Trafford. Both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were out by the touchlines, assuming almost standard full back positions. They were looking to take the ball directly from goalkeeper Michel Vorm or one of the defensive midfielders dropping in and then navigate it forward.


Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen split extremely wide.

We can see just how far out towards the touchline Toby Alderweireld was from his passes received map. It also shows how he moved up the pitch remaining wide from this starting position.


Toby Alderweireld passes received, Man Utd 1-0 Spurs.

Alderweireld, unsurprisingly, received the most passes to him from Michel Vorm and played a ton back to him too. Our backup keeper is also very comfortable on the ball and used to playing it around at the back from his Swansea days.

The way Vertonghen, Vorm and Alderweireld moved the ball round between the three of them was intelligent for two reasons. The first saw them alter the angle of attack as Man Utd sought to close down. The second stretched the Red Devil’s front line out and caused them to have to chase and cover over wider distances, wearing them out. Juan Mata ended up going down with cramp near the end, testament to the amount of work he, Rooney and Young had to get through.

Dangerous diagonals

When we signed Toby Alderweireld, one of the main reasons for bringing him in, besides his solid defending, was for his ability to play long diagonal switches of play. I looked at this in the article on ‘How Toby Alderweireld will change the Spurs defence’ where you can read more about this.

The reasons Pochettino likes ball playing centre backs is not only to knock it around at the back, but also to quickly switch the side of play. This alters the angle and position of the attack extremely quickly and again drags the defending side around, causing them to cover more ground, wearing them out.

Toby Alderweireld can play this pass extremely well and we saw him regularly attempt it against Man Utd, so much so that it became a feature.


Toby Alderweireld passes played, Man Utd 1-0 Spurs.

He often looked for Nacer Chadli or Christian Eriksen, even full back Ben Davies as he sought to switch the play quickly. It manifested itself on a pinpoint cross-field pass over the head of right back Antonio Valencia that was delivered on a plate to Christian Eriksen.


Toby Alderweireld passes to Christian Eriksen.

The Dane saw his shot saved by Sergio Romero, but the pass was a good example of what Mauricio Pochettino wants Toby Alderweireld to do. The passage of play also showed how wide the centre backs were playing, as Alderweireld delivered the ball from the wing. On top of this it showed how high up the field they are expected to get and how this pushes the full backs in to winger positions with Kyle Walker extremely advanced, dragging Ashley Young back with him.

Defensive work

Mauricio Pochettino wanted our centre backs to be wide when we have the ball, but when we lost it, they had to narrow up and recover more traditional positions.


Toby Alderweireld defensive map, Man Utd 1-0 Spurs.

Toby Alderweireld did a decent job of getting back in to do his work without the ball. He is more of an interceptor rather than a going to ground tackler, highlighted by the number of green diamonds on his defensive map. He was dribbled past once, indicated by the orange x, but his speed and recovery pace saw him cope with most situations. His lack of height and aerial power, something we looked at in the article when he arrived at Spurs, was shown up with his lost aerial duel, orange ^. He was comfortable though with Man Utd not having an aerial threat like Marouane Fellaini on the field.

What was not done so well was his and Vertonghen’s defending on Man Utd’s goal. Nabil Bentaleb shoulders the bulk of the blame for giving the ball away when our formation was extremely open and vulnerable. Our centre back pairing was caught as well though.

After Bentaleb gave the ball away to Juan Mata, the Spaniard passed it forward to Memphis Depay. Eric Dier raced across to try and engage the Dutchman, pointing at Vertonghen to track Ashley Young. At this point, Toby Alderweireld was also narrowing up, recovering from a wider position and should have kept an eye on Wayne Rooney.


Spurs in decent positions to cope with 3v3.

The situation at this point was not good, but manageable as a three on three. Dier was just getting to Memphis to close him down and Vertonghen had Young, leaving Alderweireld to take Rooney.

The problems got worse though with Jan Vertonghen deciding to also engage Memphis. This allowed Ashley Young to slip off the back of him and in to the space behind. Toby Alderweireld saw this and came across, playing Young onside and now creating a massive problem with Rooney all alone.


Vertonghen should’ve gone with Young.

Whether Vertonghen thought that Alderweireld would be taking his position in a line off him and so was trying to play offside is not known, neither is just what Jan was thinking. He shouldn’t have engaged the ball carrier as Dier had got got to him and should’ve tracked Young.

Toby Alderweireld, who had seen the danger of Young running in-behind then had to commit to his run across, otherwise he would’ve been left in no man’s land. He was unable to get there in time, as Young was able to deliver the ball to Wayne Rooney.


Toby Alderweireld fails to stop Young’s cross.

Although Toby Alderweireld was the least at fault here, improved communication and better positioning could’ve seen Young played offside.

Toby Alderweireld overall Performance

It was an extremely encouraging debut in the Premier League from Toby Alderweireld.

He looked calm and composed on the ball. His movement of it around at the back was first class and then his ability to move up the pitch and hit the switches in play will prove more menacing as the team gels.

Without the ball he was solid defensively. Larger frontlines will test his aerial ability, something that Rooney, Memphis, Young and Mata could not. Once his relationship with Jan Vertonghen is properly re-established then the pair will be much more in-sync with each other. They didn’t look like a new centre back pairing here, but there was the odd moment when they weren’t on the same page.

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4 Responses to Toby Alderweireld showing good early signs of promise

  1. MurphyN 12th August 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    Interesting stuff Mark as always. We assume Poch is simply taking a long time to implement his Southampton tactics here but in this extreme split is it possible he’s trying something new?
    He’s (uniquel)y got two centre-backs who play as full-backs in a high-ranking national side. In Dier he’s got (perhaps) a centre-back comfortable enough on the ball to play as a DM. And he cultivates fullbacks who like to get forward. Is it possible that he’s trying a new sort of tactic, a kind of flexagon formation which shifts from 4231 without the ball (possibly even 4411) to three at the back, with Dier slotting in centrally, when we have got the ball?
    The evidence would be in how the players shift further up the field. We know Kane tries to pull defenders out of position to free up a run from Chadli or Lamela. But this is likely to leave the box congested. If Walker’s on the overlap, where does the LB go? Does Bentaleb stay central? does Eriksen drop back to look for options? Do the front 4 shift asymmetrically in response to the overlapping full-back? Would be fascinating to see if this can work.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2015 at 12:11 am #

      Hi MurphyN, Pochettino did this with Lovren and Fonte – some images and examples here – so I assume he felt that the players we had, and the team in general, couldn’t cope with it or bring the ball out this way.

      We did see a back three at times as Dier dropped in against Man Utd, Pochettino did this with Southampton where his formation morphed to a Bielsa-esque 3-3-1-3, so we may be seeing the foundations of that here!

  2. Chu2ks 14th August 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Lovely analysis as usual, Mark. so good to have you back at the start of another season.

    I was so pleased with the addition of Toby to our defense, and I believe we’ll reap the fruits of his signing over the length of the whole season. Taking nothing away from his previous understanding with Vertonghen, he’s also an EPL blooded defender, which means a great deal. Apart from his other shortcomings, I think it was not having a great first season experience that has done for Fazio – but this Alderweireld had with the Saints.

    I do agree with your observation that he’s emulating Bielsa’s back-three formation, as I also drew parallels with how Javi Martinez was utilised by Bielsa at Bilbao, and Busquets by Guardiola at Barcelona. Martinez was a centre-back/defensive midfield player, much like what Poch is trying to do with Dier.

    In the absence of a true defensive specialist (Bender, yes please), I would prefer for Dier to continue and grow into it. I see Pochettino’s vision for him.

    Midfield is the key to our attack and defense, and I’m going out on a limb to say that Alli should replace Bentaleb in the pair with Dier, as I believe he gets it. Bentaleb doesn’t yet possess the box-to-box mentality, and as we saw his passing leaves a lot to be desired, and he has the sideways disease because of this.

    Ultimately, the 4-3-3 which I’ve championed for the team is looking more and more likely, with Dier/Specialist DM with Alli/Bentaleb/Mason/Carroll/Dembele/Eriksen (yes, Eriksen should drop back) fighting for two spots.

    I really see us moving forward this season.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 14th August 2015 at 7:28 pm #

      Great post Chu2ks. Yep you are spot on, Alderweireld having experience of the Premier League last season made this a really good piece of business for us. He has a lot of what Pochettino wnats in a centre back and EPL expereince is a bonus. He looks like he is settling quickly too.

      I’m interested to see how Dier develops. Watching the MLS and Audi Cup games it really looked like a disaster, but he did very well against Man Utd – his pass out straight to Schneiderlin for Mata’s chance apart. So i’m wondering at the minute if he can grow in to this role or if it was just a one off? The game against Stoke will be interesting to watch!