Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino praises Jan Vertonghen as rumours ciruclate over future of fellow Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld
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Spurs could lose one of their two Belgian centre backs this summer
For most of Toby Alderweireld’s two and a half years at Tottenham, the prospect of his departure would have seemed utterly disastrous. Seemingly invaluable, he has often seemed to be holding all the cards in his protracted contract negotiations.
Yet this season Spurs have looked less reliant on him. They coped adequately when he missed 20 matches with a torn hamstring, only losing three matches - and, while he has understandably been finding his feet on his return, he struggled in last weekend’s FA Cup tie at Rochdale.
Since then he has experienced discomfort in the same leg that sidelined him for three months, making him a doubt for Sunday’s trip to Crystal Palace. Yet that is longer the major concern it once would have been.
From Alderweireld’s perspective, then, this is hardly the ideal time to be negotiating a new deal with Tottenham, especially when he is thought to be seeking to become their best-paid player with a weekly wage of £150,000.
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He will be 29 years old on March 2, and the latest reports are that Tottenham are now considering selling him this summer.
While Alderweireld remains a Rolls Royce of a centre-back when fully fit, a profitable sale is seeming marginally more palatable in the wake of his unconvincing last appearance and this week’s injury setback – even if those situations are temporary. It is reasonable to wonder how long he will be able to maintain his top level.
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Ironically, if Alderweireld is beginning to look even slightly more replaceable, it is largely due to the form of his international team-mate Jan Vertonghen, who is having an outstanding season and is the only Tottenham player who has been involved in every minute of their league campaign so far.
While Vertonghen is the older player of the pair at 30, his consistency and class alongside the youthful Davinson Sanchez has made it a little easier to imagine a future without Alderweireld, if an impasse remains in the latter’s contract talks.
There is in fact an argument to be made that Vertonghen has become the more valuable and important player and, coincidentally or not, Pochettino appeared keen to talk him up during Friday’s press conference.
“I’m so proud that Jan has achieved this level today, not only on the pitch but off the pitch,” said the Spurs boss. “In my opinion today he’s one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League and in Europe.
“He has unbelievably quality, physical condition, technique and he’s improved in an aspect that was so important for him - the mental aspect.
“Now I think he’s a complete centre-back. He deserves to be praised because we’ve worked a lot together to reach the level he’s at today. He’s a key player for the team.”
Vertonghen’s mental qualities have been questioned in the past. Before Pochettino’s arrival his frustrations were often all too obvious from his expressions and gestures, and Spurs’ manager recalls one incident in particular - in March 2014, when the Lilywhites were about to lose 4-0 at Anfield under Tim Sherwood.
“I remember his body language when I watched the game against Liverpool, the season before we came,” said Pochettino. “He was slouched in the tunnel.
“I told him when I came ‘why are you like that? You are here for a battle! You cannot show this body language – you are a warrior! It is difficult after showing this energy to go out and take part in a battle and fight’.
“We worked a lot on this aspect and yes, it’s true that we clash a lot in training because he’s clever and always has an argument and a reason why, but in the end I appreciate a lot his efforts in trying to give to the team what we expect from him.
“Now he realises he’s so strong. He looks like a 20-year-old. When he runs he’s fast. He’s like my new dog (a Rhodesian Ridgeback).
“Physicality is his talent. It’s genetic. He’s an athlete. It’s up to him but he could play until he’s 40 because his physical condition comes very naturally to him.”
The question, of course, is whether Spurs could keep Vertonghen for that long, given the difficulty they are experiencing in extending Alderweireld’s deal.
But Pochettino said: “The club believes he (Vertonghen) needs to be rewarded. He’s one of the important players in the side.”
Alderweireld has often seemed to make those around him better due to his calming presence, his reading of the game and his poise – and Pochettino feels Vertonghen has had a similar impact on 21-year-old Sanchez.
“It’s a fantastic couple. They’ve shown since Sanchez arrived here that have a fantastic partnership,” said Pochettino.
“Davinson has amazing energy and he’s so fast, but he still needs to improve in different aspects and Jan is a perfect partner to help him achieve all we believe he can. He’s a great talent but he is still young.
“I think it’s so important [to have that mixture of youth and experience]. We need to think of Juan Foyth too. He’s 20 now and a great talent too. He only needs time to adapt himself to the Premier League. I think he’s going to surprise many people.
“Juan is a great kid, with a lot of quality and great talent to become one of the fantastic centre-backs in the Premier League and Europe too.”
Whether intentionally or not, Pochettino seems to be painting a positive picture of a possible future without Alderweireld.
But, asked whether he wants the defender to stay, he said: “Of course, Toby still has a contract and is a player who is still in our club.
“I’m not involved in the negotiations and I don’t want to be because that job is so difficult. I leave it to Daniel Levy.
“We miss all the players [when they’re injured], always. But the most important thing is not to take the situation out of context. We need to work hard to try and avoid the team being affected by these players who cannot play in different periods.
“The most important thing is, not only with the centre-backs, but with the full-backs and the offensive players, to be competitive and try to increase the level.”
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