Football Features

Why a Spurs title challenge is dependent on Eriksen and Alderweireld staying put

By Steve Jennings

Published: 18:10, 14 August 2019

When Christian Eriksen entered the field of play in the 64th minute of Tottenham Hotspur’s season opener against Aston Villa, his teammates must have breathed a sigh of relief.

A goal down at the time, Spurs were transformed by Eriksen’s presence. Twenty-five minutes later they were 3-1 up and level with the early leaders at the top of the table – exactly where they will want to be going into the run-in next year.

But there is only one way that’s going to happen. Tottenham simply must keep hold of Eriksen, who has just one year left on his contract and continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid by the end of the month. The Dane is unlikely to sign new deal with Spurs, so the Londoners must decide whether to cash in now or risk losing him for nothing next summer.

And Eriksen isn’t the only problem player in that regard. Toby Alderweireld, the team’s best defender when fit and motivated, is also a year away from leaving on a free transfer. He, too, could be sold before the European transfer deadline.

Considering Spurs chairman Daniel Levy’s self-ordained requirement to make a profit on just about every player, there is a realistic chance both Eriksen and Alderweireld will leave this month.

With or without the duo, Mauricio Pochettino’s squad has enough quality to seal a third-place finish in the Premier League. A title challenge, however, is dependent on those influential players staying put – but why is that the case?

Eriksen’s unique attributes boost Spurs

Eriksen was only on the pitch for 26 minutes plus stoppage time against Aston Villa, yet he created as many chances (3) as any other midfielder. Perhaps that’s not a surprise given that he was Tottenham’s most creative player last season, producing 73 chances for his teammates.

A more telling indicator of his influence on the opening weekend, though, was the fact that Spurs had 12 shots before he came on, and 19 after. That’s remarkable considering he was a 64th minute substitute, and it goes some way towards proving just how important Eriksen is for the team in general play.

Christian Eriksen receives instructions from Mauricio Pochettino before coming on as a substitute

Tottenham struggled to break Villa down in the first hour because they didn’t have a midfielder able to make space for himself and willing to accept the ball. Up to that point, debutant Tanguy Ndombele had struggled to make his mark on the game, while Moussa Sissoko’s final ball left a lot to be desired and Harry Winks sat too deep.

Eriksen changed all that. He replaced Winks and immediately made Villa look more open defensively. That’s because Eriksen wears the mark of a top-class playmaker: the ability to constantly be in space. Spurs instantly looked more incisive, and although the 27-year-old didn’t provide a goal nor an assist himself, his presence noticeably gave his teammates more freedom and confidence.

Ndombele brilliantly curled in an equaliser and suddenly looked like a record signing. Sissoko exploited the space Eriksen generated to assist the third goal. Through no coincidence, everything came together for Tottenham.

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How could Spurs line up without Eriksen?

With all of the above in mind, Spurs must find a way to play without Eriksen if he leaves. One pivotal component in doing so is a player we didn’t see on Saturday: deadline day signing Giovani Lo Celso.

There will be a lot of pressure on the 23-year-old to make up for Eriksen’s absence, which is made even more difficult by the fact Lo Celso is not the exact same type of midfielder. He is a better dribbler but less productive creatively – yet that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be a good fit.

Indeed, if Tottenham line up in a 4-3-3 – or some variation of that formation, like a 4-3-1-2 – as they did before Eriksen came on against Villa, there could be a readymade role for Lo Celso in the midfield three.

Eriksen often played slightly deeper last season, joining Winks and Sissoko in midfield, which helped Spurs start attacks from further back but that sometimes meant Eriksen’s influence was missing in the final third. Lo Celso, then, is perhaps more appropriate for this role.

Like Ndombele, Lo Celso is excellent at provoking the transition from defence to attack. The Argentinian completed more take-ons (63) than any other Real Betis player in La Liga last season. He also won more fouls (67) than Lionel Messi (66) as a result of his trickery and dribbling ability.

The big question mark is whether Lo Celso can play that Eriksen-like killer ball to split a defence when the opposition is standing firm. Regardless of how quickly that comes, Lo Celso is certain to be a key cog in Pochettino’s line-up as part of a midfield trio with Winks and Ndombele – a process that could be expedited by Eriksen’s departure.

Alderweireld stance complicated by Vertonghen situation

No Tottenham fan would have been hugely surprised to see Pochettino leave a Belgian centre-back out of his squad on the opening day, but nobody expected it to be Jan Vertonghen.

Despite the fact no club triggered his £25m release clause before it expired last month, Alderweireld continues to be linked with an exit, something the club’s supporters have been expecting for some time.

Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld training before the 2019 Champions League final

Alderweireld was selected against Villa, but his partner was not Vertonghen as expected. Pre-match chatter suggested Vertonghen had picked up a slight injury. It soon became clear that wasn’t the case.

Vertonghen confirmed he wasn’t injured and Pochettino claimed he picked an XI made up of the players who deserved to start. With Vertonghen’s contract also expiring in a year, there were suggestions the 32-year-old had become the latest Spurs star to fall foul of Pochettino’s preference to select players who want to be at the club.

Later, reports suggested Pochettino had deemed Vertonghen not fit enough to start, something the centre-back took issue with. Pochettino apparently wasn’t happy with his player’s response and dropped him from the entire 18. If true, Vertonghen’s future could now be as uncertain as Alderweireld’s, which would be a real issue for Tottenham.

If they lose Alderweireld, then Vertonghen must be retained. His quality, experience and versatility are crucial. But in the rather unlikely scenario Vertonghen’s relationship with Pochettino is beyond repair, Alderweireld’s presence suddenly becomes massively important again, especially if Spurs want to challenge for the title.

Spurs may yet pay for previous lack of transfer activity

That Tottenham have allowed Alderweireld and Eriksen to enter the final year of their contracts is partly down to their lack of transfer activity in recent windows. The duo may have been sold last summer had Spurs been willing to bring in replacements at the time.

Now, the club is a year away from a summer window in which they could lose Alderweireld, Eriksen and Vertonghen for nothing. What’s more, Danny Rose will have just a year left on his deal, meaning he will likely be sold for less than he is worth.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy watches Mauricio Pochettino's side in action

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy

Levy is renowned for his ability to rake in massive fees for players who arrived for relatively low prices. Gareth Bale was sold to Real Madrid for a then-world record fee in 2013, while a huge profit was made on Kieran Trippier last month.

As a result, Spurs have some big decisions to make before the end of the month. Would they rather make a financial gain from the sales of Eriksen and Alderweireld this summer? Or is the priority to mount a Premier League title challenge and lose those players for nothing next year? It seems ‘squeaky bum time’ is no longer a term reserved solely for the run-in.