After more than a month of haggling, the deal has finally been done. Kyle Walker is off to Manchester City for a transfer fee thought to be in excess of £50 million. What we will only find out over the course of the coming season is who got the better of the deal. Tottenham or City?
Fifty million pounds is an eye-wateringly high price for Walker and makes him the world’s most expensive defender. It was certainly a fee that Spurs’ chairman, Daniel Levy, found unable to resist. Walker had originally been valued at £40m — a price that most people already considered excessive — but Levy chose to play hardball with the City owners. He rightly suspected the Manchester club would be unable to secure the services of their first choice right-back, Paris Saint-Germain’s Dani Alves, and that money would be no object when it came to acquiring a replacement. By holding out for an extra month, Levy brought in an extra £10m to Spurs. Nice work if you can get it.
Nor was there any doubt that Spurs were in the mood to sell Walker. The writing had been on the wall for the England right-back since March when Mauricio Pochettino began to favour Kieran Trippier as his first choice for the starting XI. Walker was reportedly furious about the demotion but the manager held his ground, believing Trippier was just as secure as Walker in defence and offered more in attack due to the better accuracy of his crossing.
When Walker was left out for Spurs’ last ever home game at White Hart Lane against Manchester United, few believed they would be seeing him play in a Tottenham shirt again. It was clear Pochettino had lost faith in his player and wanted him gone. Tellingly, the manager has made several public interventions in the media, imploring Tottenham not to sell Eric Dier to Manchester United at any price; Pochettino never said a word on behalf of Walker. Spurs were selling him with the manager’s blessing.
On the face of it, then, this was the perfect deal for Spurs. They managed to offload a player they wanted to sell at a world-record price. What club could hope for more? And yet Walker’s absence does leave a hole in the squad and the deal will only turn out to have been a good one for Spurs if the club manages to fill it.
Walker has always divided opinion at White Hart Lane. He’s one of the few players who can go from looking like a world-class footballer one moment to a third division journeyman the next. In his early years at the club, he seemed unable to get through a game without making one or two catastrophic errors that would set up goal-scoring opportunities for opponents, and even in recent seasons he often appeared to lose concentration at key moments.
Eventually Pochettino lost patience and decided Walker was never going to eliminate this fatal flaw in his game and that he had to go. Nor was the manager the only one to have his reservations: despite being one of the longest serving players at the club, the fans never got round to creating a Kyle Walker chant. Supporters just couldn’t bring themselves to love Walker the way they did other players. They couldn’t forget or forgive his schoolboy errors.
For all Walker’s very obvious shortcomings, it’s hard to say he was a liability, though. Certainly, in recent seasons he seemed to have settled down and, along with Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, had become one of the strongest and meanest back fives in the Premier league. And if his distribution left something to be desired, his pace was enough of a threat to make opponents wary of breaking forward in numbers. He was also good enough to be included in last year’s PFA Premier League Team of the Year: a team that was picked by fellow players, who understand the game as well as anyone.
Even if Trippier is Pochettino’s first choice right-back, Walker’s departure does unbalance the squad. With the demands made on the modern wing-back — not least when Spurs are hoping to make more of an impression in the Champions League than they did last year — it is unreasonable to believe that Trippier can start every game in the coming season. Bear in mind also that the Wembley pitch is wider than White Hart Lane, so the wing-backs will have even more ground to cover.
So Spurs will need to find a replacement for Walker quickly. They now have the money in the bank to afford him, but will they be able to find anyone suitable. The thing about Walker was that, for all his faults, he was a known quantity and the other players had learned to adapt to the foibles of his game. Bringing in someone new is always a risk. No matter how good they appear to be, they can struggle to adapt to a new manager’s ideas and the pace of the Premier league.
Pochettino has got most things right at Spurs and fans would be stupid not to back his judgment now. But it will be only this time next year when the wisdom of selling Walker can be properly assessed.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC’s Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.