Toby Alderweireld has a lot to say. In an exclusive interview with Dan Kilpatrick at the Evening Standard (which you should read in full), his first major interview since leaving Tottenham Hotspur this past summer, the Belgian international central defender opened up about his six year career at Spurs, why he felt as though the time was right for him to leave Spurs for a club in Qatar, and especially Tottenham’s high water mark under Mauricio Pochettino.
Alderweireld clearly enjoyed looking back on his best years at Spurs under Pochettino, especially that magical run to the Champions League final. However, things fell apart shortly afterwards, and Toby also gave confirmation on what we understood about how things went wrong after that point — the run to the final and the loss so disappointing that neither the players nor Pochettino had anything left in the tank for the next season. Tottenham’s form collapsed at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, and a visibly frustrated and drained Pochettino was eventually sacked.
“That would have been the trophy for our golden generation. With the money we spent – almost nothing – and the way we played, it would have been an unbelievable achievement, especially if you saw the teams we beat.
“Afterwards the tank was empty. After a couple of seasons, it was one too many. When I look back now, we needed a bigger break to really have the desire to go again. The disappointment was too fresh.
“It was the same for everyone, even [Pochettino]. A manager’s career is different but the opportunity of Champions League Finals is [rare].
“I know for sure he loves Spurs, even to this day, and to achieve it with the club at the time would have been maybe the biggest achievement ever in Spurs’ history. So it’s logical. He needed time to refresh himself and get the desire to go again.”
You do wonder that, even if Tottenham had won the Champions League that year, whether something similar would have happened, considering the mental and physical drain on the squad and the manager. Reading between the lines, Toby seems to imply that the “painful rebuild” that Pochettino alluded would have needed to happen regardless of the result, but that the squad Poch assembled was something special.
“The team was so close. You get close because the Pochettino way is not the easy way. You work so hard every day. Days off are very, very rare. You get the same as the army really. You get angry but you get fitter, you get better. Train on, train off! You do it and it creates a group, like, ‘Let’s do it together’. So that was the feeling, especially in the seasons with Leicester, Chelsea, the Champions League.
“Then some players go and some players come and it needs redoing. Sometimes you need chemistry that works. I’m not saying it didn’t work but we have to be honest. The group we had then was a very special group of friendship.”
A lot has been written, including on this website, that suggested that the relationship between Alderweireld and Pochettino had soured at the end of the Argentine’s career at Spurs. Toby’s £40m release clause (which was not triggered by another club) and the fact that he did not sign an extension with Spurs until after Jose Mourinho’s appointment was viewed as evidence that things were not good between him and Pochettino.
However, Toby disputes that, denying that he ever intended to leave the club and that Spurs only offered an acceptable extension deal in that last season. While he hints at some disagreements now and then, he says that his relationship with Poch has always been and continues to be good.
“Poch is more clever than me. He saw things that I didn’t see. I thought we had a very good squad. Our relationship is very positive. I’m always very grateful that he bought me to Spurs. He was the guy who texted and called me that I had to come, he was the guy who got the best out of me, 100 per cent for sure. I was most fit under him.
“Of course in football if you work four or five days together and you’re a big personality – because I have my thoughts about football as well – you have discussions. And that’s fine. But I never had a problem with him. Never ever. I’m grateful because he took me two or three levels up.”
Alderweireld said the real motivation for leaving Tottenham for a position in the Middle East — Qatari club al-Duhail — wasn’t so much the money, or dissatisfaction with Tottenham, but a desire to take a step back from the constant churn of European football at the end of his playing career in order to spend more time with his family.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s good money! But I want to see my family a lot more. [In European football] there’s more games, more tournaments. More! I’m on 116 [international] caps. It means I not only play the games but travel. For 13 years I’m in the national team, Europa League, Champions League, Premier League. It’s always more, more [time] away from home.
“My daughter is three. My son is one-and-a-half. I miss them a lot. And I miss things from them a lot. They grow up, they do their first things. I’m never there. That was a big part for me. Maybe I’d enjoy my football more because I’d be more at home. I always had a feeling I wasn’t there. How many Christmases did I miss? How many New Years?
“So I thought if I want to enjoy my football and keep enjoying it, I have to be more at home. I played two World Cups, two Euros. There’s another World Cup coming. When do you say, ‘enough’? I have goals and in the meantime I can bring my children to school and see them a lot more than in England.
“Spurs never pushed me [to leave]. I think I’m not lying when I say they respect what I did for the club. I gave my best years for the club, achieved a lot of big things together. And I have a lot of respect for Spurs. They said ‘If you want to go, we understand. You gave your best for Spurs and we’ll work with it if that’s what you want.’”
It’s easy to be nostalgic for those golden years at the end of the 2010s, and it comes across clearly that Toby enjoyed his time at Tottenham, even as he acknowledges that it was time to go. And while things have certainly taken a turn for the worse in recent years, Toby seems to have faith that the leadership at the club has the wherewithal to steer Spurs out of choppy waters and back to being a top club in English football.
“You don’t know all the things that happen in a club. It’s not Football Manager. I know for sure that Daniel Levy gave 100 per cent for the club. It’s good they’re not happy with where they are now. The structure is there to be one of the biggest clubs in the world. Maybe they need some more time.
“I know in football there’s no time but I don’t think the club should have done anything else. How many times do you see clubs invest too much and then they’re in trouble? Spurs know what it is to be healthy.”