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Pochettino hints at improving relationship with Toby Alderweireld

Spurs’ manager is tired of talking about player relations, but suggested that because he started him, Toby has proven he’s committed to the team.

Tottenham Hotspur v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest surprise ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-1 win over Fulham at Wembley Stadium today was Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to start Toby Alderweireld in Spurs’ back line. Much has been written about Alderweireld’s relationship with Pochettino over the past year, Toby’s apparent wish to leave Tottenham for a bigger payday elsewhere, and his refusal to sign a contract extension at Spurs.

So when Pochettino rolled out a formation that featured Alderweireld in a back three alongside Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez, the man who seemingly replaced him in Spurs’ lineup, it was a pretty big deal. Toby didn’t have perhaps the best match of his career, but he was hardly poor and passed the ball quite well for much of the game.

Naturally, Pochettino was asked about his selection of Alderweireld in the post-match press conference, with reporters wondering what they could read into his selection. Did this mean that player and manager have started mending fences? Is he still upset that he didn’t get his move to Manchester United? Might Toby still leave the club before the close of the European transfer window at the end of the month?

Pochettino responded with a long, rambling answer that was equal parts pique and information. Poch appeared frustrated that he keeps having to address the issue, but hinted that if things were as broken as what the media has suggested, Toby wouldn’t have played today at all.

He started off by saying that he doesn’t really want to keep addressing player relations with the press anymore.

“Look this season I am not going to talk... look, many things happened and are going to happen and happened in the past. I am not going to talk, because that is a private matter. I am only going to talk about what you saw on the pitch, about the performance, about decisions. It’s obviously that, like I explained in the press conference. I’m not going to talk about it.

”I told you, players that have the possibility to stay here, I do not talk about him, I talk about in general always. I want player commitment with the team. Players that are not happy, from my point of view, everyone can leave. Then it’s different if they can negotiate with Daniel [Levy] and he agrees [to sell].

“But for me, I want players who are fully committed with the team and want to fight for the team. The players that are here are all committed. Not one told me today that they wanted to find a solution. That is why I’m not going to make any comment about that situation because you know it’s so...everyone can have their opinion and it’s a lot of parts in different situations that can give or provide different information.”

Fair enough! The situation with Toby has only been an issue for six months, right? Poch isn’t one to throw players under the bus through the media — he never has been, and it’s one of the reasons why his players (generally) like and respect him, even as he plays the role of cult leader from time to time.

And yet his actions also speak volumes. By virtue of starting Alderweireld in the back line today, Poch is saying that he not only thinks that Toby can help Spurs be better, but also that he is ready to put the past behind him and give 100% to Tottenham Hotspur this season.

”It’s a lot of things that I can say, but I promise you I’m not going to waste time talking about individual situations. [Those who are] not happy, we have the possibility to fix it. Every week or every month the club pay their salary on the 28th. The players, when they sign a contract, they sign to be available to be selected by the manager.

“But when they sign they sign to show the manager in training that they deserve to play. The manager can have some predilection, maybe to play with three at the back or four or five. Look players who don’t play they need to wait, if I’m going to be sacked or if someone, or another, finds another solution.

”Look you know better than me, but it’s wasting time like this. It’s not going to change. You’re not going to put pressure on me, or put pressure on my decision. Nobody is going to blackmail me. The club is not going to put pressure on me or if not I go home. Look, many things can happen. Sorry for giving you this situation, but I am so... I want to enjoy football I promise you.

”When I started playing football it was because I loved the emotions that translated with the ball. When I started my career as a manager it was to provide the players with the tools to play and enjoy football on the pitch. But sometimes it is so tough, but that is part of my job too, I understand.”

So Toby played today. And from those comments, it sure sounds as though Toby has proven to Poch that he is present with and fully committed to the team. Poch made a big deal after the Newcastle match about how all the players that remained after the close of the English transfer window have a fresh start with him, that the past is in the past and it’s more important to look forward. I think he believes it, too. I also think that means that Toby has earned his role in Spurs starting XI today.

And yet I can’t help but also read into these comments the sense that all is still not fully right between player and manager. I have no real evidence to say so, but I think their relationship was damaged based on Toby’s decision not to sign a new contract, and everything that happened this summer. If I were to guess, I’d say that relations were poor in the recent past, but that they’ve come to an understanding in the interest of squad harmony. Toby’s too good of a player for Pochettino to banish to the reserves out of spite, and there’s not much reason for Alderweireld to throw a tantrum at this point. So why not let bygones be bygones, even if it’s temporary? You might call it an armistice, if not an accord.

I have no idea what’s going to happen to Toby in the short, medium, or long term. Based on today’s match, I suspect he’s not going to be sold to the continent unless Spurs get an offer close to what they were demanding from Manchester United. I think it’s possible that he could be sold in January. I suspect that if he does stay Toby probably will leave the club next summer for £25m. But thanks to a 90 minute performance that reminded us all of happier times, it does seem as though if there is a chasm between Pochettino and Alderweireld, both players seem to be willing to reach across the divide.