Toby Alderweireld transfer saga at Tottenham reveals core conflict between club, players
Shortly before half-time in the Champions League clash against Real Madrid at Wembley last November, Toby Alderweireld went off with a hamstring injury. At the time it felt like a minor blow, one that would maybe sideline the Belgian international for a month or six weeks. Instead, it turned out to be a landmark moment -- one that would shape Alderweireld's future at Spurs and define the club's relationship with its talent.
Before the injury, Alderweireld had been one of the lynchpins of the Tottenham side. One of the first names to be pencilled in on any team sheet. His partnership with Jan Vertonghen at the heart of the defence had been the best in the Premier League during the 2016-17 campaign, and even the arrival of Davinson Sanchez at the beginning of last season caused little disruption. Mauricio Pochettino merely moved Eric Dier to play further forward and slotted his new signing alongside his two Belgian defenders.
It took a bit of time for Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Sanchez to settle in together. Early on there were a few defensive wobbles, with players being caught out of position. But by last November the defence was running like a well-oiled machine. Spurs were on their way to beating the European champions and qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League. All was sweet.
Then everything changed. First Alderweireld's injury took longer to heal than originally thought. Next came rumours that Alderweireld and Spurs were having a standoff over his contract. Players and clubs have these sort of encounters all the time and most are resolved amicably. Still, even once Alderweireld was fully fit, he could barely get a game.
To not include one of your best players when so much was at stake seemed wilfully perverse on Pochettino's part. Tottenham crashed out of the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United and had a late wobble in the Premier League, but still Alderweireld made only the odd appearance. The inescapable conclusion was that he was being frozen out.
Just how the relationship between club and player deteriorated quite so badly only those at the centre of it know. But it seems reasonable to assume that Alderweireld's assessment of his own value did not match that of the chairman. And when Daniel Levy decides to play hardball, there's only ever one winner. So Spurs are set to lose their best defender, with the club looking for something in the region of £75m and Manchester United firmly in the frame as a potential buyer.
What makes the situation even more bizarre for fans dismayed at the likely exit of one of their favourite players is that -- in their own ways -- both Alderweireld and Levy were right in their demands. The defender is rumoured to have been asking for a new contract worth in the region of £150,000 per week. It's a sum that a player of his quality could well expect to receive at any of the other top six clubs. Just not at Spurs.
Levy has his own parallel wage structure that bears more resemblance to a mid-table Premier League club than one that has finished in the top three for the past three seasons. Not even Harry Kane, who would be on most clubs' wish lists, earns £150,000 as a basic weekly salary. And if Levy isn't going to pay that amount to one of the world's leading strikers, there's no way he's going to pay it for Alderweireld. One of football's ironies is that the success of any club is often built around the meanness of its defence, and yet defenders are often the least well-paid.
So Alderweireld looks set to go, on a point of principle rather than because he's surplus to requirements. Just what a state Spurs have got into over the Alderweireld deadlock is illustrated by rumours that the club is looking at West Bromwich Albion defender Ahmed Hegazi as a possible replacement. Irony doesn't begin to cover it. At 27, Hegazi is only two years younger than Alderweireld and isn't in the Belgian's league in quality. For a club that is hoping to press on and become a genuine contender for both the Premier League and Champions League to lose a top player -- and to a rival club at that -- in exchange for someone unproven at the highest level makes little sense.
It's also a situation that Pochettino shows little sign of tolerating again. Especially now he has just extended his own contract. He may have lost the battle over Alderweireld, but he's laid down a marker to Levy over the rest of the squad. The manager feels he's taken the current team as far as he can. He's done great things on a fraction of the budget of other top clubs, but miracles require a little more.
His message to Levy now is clear: If you're serious about wanting Spurs to progress to the next level in the new stadium, then back me and back the players with more cash. Break the arbitrary barriers of the self-imposed wage structures. Yes, players may be paid a lot more than is really decent in a world where so many people live in poverty, but that's the state of modern football. Put up or shut up. And if the chairman doesn't want to play ball, then Poch will walk in a year's time. Along with many of the players he has assembled into the finest Spurs team in more than 50 years.
So Alderweireld's departure is a watershed moment. This is a time when a manager felt strong enough to go toe to toe with Levy. Much depends on who blinks first. Fans and everyone associated with the club will be keeping their fingers crossed and praying that it's Levy.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.