Did you think this Toby Alderweireld thing was going to blow over? Buddy, I’ve got news for you. Speculation over the Belgian center back’s future at Tottenham Hotspur is only going to intensify now that the Guardian has reported that Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has ruled him out of the upcoming Champions League match against Juventus next Wednesday with a hamstring injury.
That also means that we won’t see Toby feature tomorrow against Rochdale, or Saturday vs. Huddersfield, either. The line from the club is that his omission is due to a secondary injury to a different part of the hamstring that he injured in the Champions League win over Real Madrid.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is adamant that his exclusion is about injury and fitness, and not about anything else.
“He is still not participating with the group. The answer is clear.
“Sometimes we are confused about what it means to be fit. After you tear the muscle, you can be fit to participate in training but then it’s to be fit to play and then [to be fit] to compete.
“Sometimes the people create an expectation and then we are the bad guys when we say: ‘No, you cannot play,’ or: ‘We start to build your fitness step by step.’
“We don’t take our decisions based on public opinion. When we take them, it’s because we have assessed and analyzed. We look after the whole situation, not just a bit of it. The people see this player is fit and he should play. It’s not like that, especially with this kind of injury.”
That’s a pretty definitive and declarative statement by Pochettino. Toby’s initial injury was severe, and although he declared himself fit a couple of weeks ago, that declaration would seem to feed into exactly what Poch is talking about above. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Alderweireld’s first two matches back — against Newport County and Rochdale in the FA Cup — were decidedly underwhelming.
All this comes amidst swirling rumors that suggest that Spurs are ready to cut bait on Alderweireld and sell him this summer. Reports last week suggested that Toby’s representatives are at loggerheads with the club over a reported wage increase to £150k/week; Spurs are reportedly not willing to go over £110k/wk plus performance-based incentives. It’s even been reported that Spurs are now considering trying to sell Alderweireld this summer in order to maximize his return on investment, instead of invoking the one year extension on his contract letting him go for £25m in the summer of 2019.
That has led some to speculate that there’s something decidedly off in the interactions between Alderweireld and Pochettino, and that holding him out of the Juventus match might be as much of a power play from Poch as it is handling of an injured player.
I don’t know how much to believe that. It’s not as though we haven’t seen Poch drive players out of the club — Emmanuel Adebayor, Younes Kaboul, and Nabil Bentaleb are easy examples; a more complicated one is the saga last spring that resulted in the eventual sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City. The difference here is that it doesn’t appear that Toby has had his head turned by any club in particular; if there is a rift it’s due to Alderweireld wanting one more big money contract before his career begins to decline.
It feels like there’s two separate issues running in parallel here. There’s the injury situation, which if we believe Pochettino Spurs appear to be handling it correctly, or at least not incorrectly. And then there’s the contract situation, which is extremely complicated and which has already divided fan opinion. I think we can safely say that the two issues are frustrating in their own way, and might even feed off of each other, but I’m not quite ready to say yet that this is an example of Mauricio Pochettino punishing one of his best players for daring to want a better opportunity. Frustration over the injury and playing time could, however, become an overlapping factor that could lead to Toby eventually being willing to leave the club.
At the end of the day, all we really know is this: Spurs will be without their best defender for a crucial Champions League match against the two-time reigning European runners-up, one which they enter deadlocked at 2-2. Take away everything else swirling around the club at the moment: as good as Davinson Sanchez has been in Toby’s absence this season, it’s hard not to say that isn’t a disappointing development on a number of levels.