Since he went down with an injury earlier this month against West Brom, much has been said about how much Spurs miss Toby Alderweireld in the heart of defense. And his defensive qualities are obvious and worth noting: In terms of personnel, the only change from 2014-15 Spurs (one of the worst defensive records in England) to 2015-16 (the best defensive team in England) was the addition of Alderweireld.
He’s a strong defender, organizes the defense well, and makes Jan Vertonghen a better player as well since he allows Vertonghen to do what he does best and conceals many of Vert’s weaknesses. One thing that hasn’t been discussed as much is the role that Alderweireld plays in the Spurs attack.
Alderweireld Makes the Spurs Attack More Varied
When you look at the Spurs typical front six either last season or this season, a common thread emerges: This is a team set up to maintain pressure high up the field, to keep the ball in the attacking third, and to lean heavily on Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Kane to provide build-up play while Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min, and Kane also make the final pass or shot that finishes an attack.
This system works, but it can also be easier to defend if it is too one-dimensional. The 4-2-3-1 system Pochettino uses is fairly narrow. The 4-1-4-1 is less narrow, but also throws one more body forward into the attacking third. So both systems pack the attacking third in ways that can make it easier to defend.
One way that Spurs deal with this problem is by using Alderweireld as a kind of libero playmaker from the back who makes long passes to skip over the congested midfield area and set up attacks more directly. The most obvious example of this is his assist to Dele last season against Everton:
That said, Alderweireld makes these kind of long passes on a regular basis. Here is a passing chart from our 4-0 win against Stoke earlier this season:
The key thing to note here is that even though many of those long passes are not completed, that doesn’t necessarily matter. Failed long passes played into the attacking third with a team that does a good high press are not necessarily turnovers.
If the pass is completed, the attack goes on. If it is not, it creates a phase of transition from which the team can recover the ball and, potentially, launch a fast attack out of the quick ball recovery. Liverpool does this masterfully, but we are also very good at it.
Alderweireld’s passing ability also makes us a more balanced team.
If you look at the Spurs midfield options, one of the things that stands out is the lack of an elite passing midfielder. Mousa Dembele has many qualities, but he is not a great creative passer. Eric Dier is functional but nothing special. Victor Wanyama’s biggest liability is his passing. Christian Eriksen is an elite passer, but still is better deployed in the attacking third. Dele Alli is a high-risk-high-reward passer, which is fine in a midfield three but is extremely dangerous in a midfield two.
So how are Spurs able to create the volume of chances they do despite this significant gap in the team? Much of it has to do with Alderweireld. As much as we joke about Janby Alderweirtonghen, the more important relationship for how we play as a team may be Alderweireld’s relationship to Dier when Dier plays as a holding midfielder.
Dier is originally a center back. Alderweireld is an Ajax product. Because of this, the two can easily swap positions when Spurs are in possession. Alderweireld pushes into midfield and plays more like a deep-lying playmaker, making the sort of passes Luka Modric often played during his time at Spurs. Dier then drops back into the right-sided center back role opposite Vertonghen. This sort of swapping was a regular feature in our attack last season and is how we were able to conceal our starting midfield’s passing limitations.
The challenge to replacing Alderweireld, then, is not simply that you need someone who can replicate the defensive contributions of a player who is arguably one of the five best center backs in the world right now. That’s a notable challenge, but Dier has performed admirably in that part of the game. Like Toby, he has above-average pace for a defender, he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, he has above-average football intelligence, and he is a big presence in the box. He’s not on Alderweireld’s level, but as backups go Eric Dier is at an acceptable level to back up Toby Alderweireld defensively.
Replicating Alderweireld’s passing ability is a much more difficult thing. David Luiz can match him as a passing center back. Maybe Vertonghen can. But beyond that the list of elite passing defenders who can defend like Alderweireld is extremely short. And that, more than the defensive quality he brings, is probably the thing we miss most.