Article by Matthew Comito
As Toby Alderweireld draws closer to his first Premier League appearance in three months, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino faces the delicate task of bringing him back into the fold without disrupting his side’s current form.
Tottenham’s worst spell of form of the season came directly after the Belgian defender tore his hamstring against Real Madrid at the start of November, winning only two of their following six games.
In mid-December however, Pochettino reverted away from a 3-5-1 formation to the 4-2-3-1 that took his side to a 2nd place finish in the last campaign.
Tottenham have since been on a tear of form, winning 11 of 16 games, losing just once in this run to Guardiola’s rampant Manchester City.
In the last three league games an unchanged Spurs starting lineup has taken seven points from a possible nine against Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
The way back into the team for Alderweireld may not be as straightforward as first thought.
With the FA Cup fifth round and the international break on our doorstep, Pochettino will have the time to ponder how to strike the right balance in adding arguably his best defender back into the fray.
Prior to his injury, Alderweireld played alongside Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez in a back three.
The trio went undefeated in the six Premier League and Champions League games they played together.
Returning to a 3-5-1 to accommodate the three centre-halves could cause problems for a Tottenham side developing a high standard of performance and consistency in their current system.
Playing three centre-halves would also require an attacking casualty, which in Tottenham’s case is most commonly Heung-Min Son.
The South Korean has enjoyed a run of form similar to last season playing in a dynamic midfield three behind Harry Kane, with 8 goals and 4 assists to his name in the league so far.
Another option available to Pochettino is to slot Alderweireld into the current formation.
Dropping club record signing Sanchez to pair Alderweireld with his compatriot Vertonghen would be the most likely choice in this scenario.
The Belgian duo are undoubtedly Tottenham’s best centre-half pairing in a back four, however the recent form of Sanchez may give pause to Pochettino’s willingness to alter what is currently a winning formula in the centre of his defence.
When questioned in his post-match press conference after the North London Derby about his decision to leave Alderweireld out of the squad, Pochettino’s response was particularly prickly.
“I picked (the) player that I believe are the best to play in every game,” said the 45-year-old.
‘The reason is that I believe the 11 players that played today were the best to win, we won, if we lose maybe I accept the question…”
If Pochettino’s approach to team selection remains the same, it seems that Alderweireld will need to compete with both Vertonghen and Sanchez to regain his spot in the Tottenham lineup.
With Rochdale in the FA Cup 5th round on Sunday, perhaps this will be the next opportunity for Pochettino to give another 90 minutes to his talented Belgian defender.
With his side balancing a push for top four in the league, knockout stages in Europe and a potential Quarter Final berth in the FA Cup on the cards, having a fully fit Toby Alderweireld is far from a problem.
It’s sure to cause Pochettino a headache regardless.