It was a significant admission from Mauricio Pochettino, wedged towards the end of a convivial press conference in which he had shared his thoughts on Harry Kane's recovery from injury, Dele Alli's struggles with England and even whether he would ban his players from watching the Anthony Joshua fight tonight, with a key game against Chelsea tomorrow afternoon. (Ever the problem-solver, Pochettino explained that he wouldn't impose a ban, but would advise his players to record the fight and watch it the next morning.)
Finally the conversation turned to Toby Alderweireld. Twelve months ago, any conversation about the world's best centre-halves would have to include the Belgian, who at the age of 28 was at the very peak of his powers. Now, Alderweireld can't even get into the Spurs team. Having missed three months with a hamstring injury, Alderweireld has failed to force his way back into the side.
Since returning to training, his only games have been in the FA Cup against Newport and Rochdale. And for the first time, Pochettino has admitted his exclusion is on footballing rather than fitness grounds.
"I need to pick the players that I believe are the best players to win against Chelsea, and then against Stoke," he said. "I cannot play with more than 11, and you need to choose. I agree that players need to play and compete. But for me, first of all, every single player needs to show in the training session they are better than their team-mate."
The clock is ticking on this one, and in more than one sense. Earlier this week, after a rusty-looking display in Belgium's friendly against Saudi Arabia, his international manager Roberto Martinez warned Alderweireld that he needed a regular run of games in order to be sure of his place at this summer's World Cup.
"Seven weeks," Martinez said, "is not a lot of time. For certain players, playing time is not essential. But other players who have not played that much - and Toby can be one of those - it is important."
Pochettino and Martinez are close friends, and even exchanged text messages after the Belgium game. But for Pochettino, there would be no question of giving Alderweireld a Premier League start unless his performances in training had earned it.
"My focus is to win games with Tottenham. I cannot be kind with every single manager. I need to care for my club, and we have plenty of international players. Toby, in the last four months, has struggled with his injury. I am not going to change the system because Toby needs games for the World Cup."
It is easily forgotten just what a grievous blow Alderweireld's absence seemed when it occurred, during the 3-1 win against Real Madrid at Wembley in November. And yet, despite occasionally being exposed against top opposition - Manchester City, Liverpool and Juventus, for example - Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez have forged a reliable defensive partnership, shipping just 18 goals in 20 league games.
There is, of course, another issue lurking in the background. By all accounts, talks between Alderweireld and Tottenham over a new contract have crumbled to the point of collapse. Pochettino's response to an enquiry about the latest progress - "no, I don't talk about rumours" - hardly suggested a detente was in the offing.
The precedent of Kyle Walker, who said around this time last year that he would seek a summer move, disrupting the dressing room at a key stage of the season, is one the club are desperate to avoid.
For now, Pochettino insists that the way is clear for Alderweireld to return to the first-team, but only if he proves himself. "I need to pick two centre-backs, and if you are happy to keep the two (current) players, he needs to wait," he said. "If he keeps working hard, he is going to have the opportunity to play and compete."
The tone was conciliatory, but the words themselves will only accelerate the interpretation that Alderweireld and Tottenham are a relationship close to running its course. At the very least, you suspect Alderweireld will be able to watch the boxing, safe in the knowledge his services will not be required tomorrow. (© Independent News Service)
Chelsea v Tottenham,
Live, Sky Sports, 4.0 tomorrow
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