Jan Vertonghen quickly became a fan favourite upon his arrival from Ajax in 2012, with his composed defending, adventurous forward-play and a knack of scoring goals earning him a place in the PFA Team of the Season.
Despite his special debut year for Spurs, the Belgian’s form dipped in the second season. Two separate Malleolar injuries and a knee injury meant he only featured in 23 League games, and when he was fit, he had no consistent partner (partly down to injuries, partly down to AVB’s rotational centre back method). A rapidly declining Younes Kaboul, an ageing Michael Dawson and extravagant new signing Vlad Chiriches all played alongside Vertonghen during the 2013-14 season, and this inconsistency affected Jan’s game.
Dawson was no longer as mobile as he once was, Chiriches was error-prone and Kaboul, after a year out with injury, looked to be way past his best. Vertonghen had to contain his adventurous style in order to prioritise covering his partner in defence, who always seemed to have a mistake in him no matter who it was. The marauding forward runs, both on and off the ball were cut from his game, and he no longer stepped into midfield to help create chances as often as he did in his previous season. Jan’s ball playing abilities were going to waste.
The following Summer not only saw new manager, Mauricio Pochettino arrive, but also saw the club go out and sign another central defender. Federico Fazio signed from Sevilla having just captained his side to the Europa League trophy. As a tall, strong, no-nonsense defender coming off the back of a good individual season, Fazio seemed to fit the bill as Jan’s partner. A sturdy, solid and reliable lynchpin to enhance Vertonghen’s creativity and inventiveness.
Despite this, newly appointed club captain, Younes Kaboul started the season as Pochettino’s first choice centre back, and Fazio didn’t get a Premier League start until October against Man City, where he got sent off for a foul on Aguero. Fazio picked up another red in the Europa League, but managed to find himself on the team-sheet more regularly due to Kaboul’s poor form. Things picked up from here, as Vertonghen and Fazio formed a consistent partnership.
The pair’s first 12 Premier League games saw an improvement in Spurs’ form, with eight wins, two draws and two defeats (one of which was to Chelsea). Vertonghen spoke in interviews about the benefits of having Federico as a consistent partner, claiming that “He [Fazio] is a beast in the air and I’m less strong in the air than him, but we compensate for each other in that way.” aswell as praising Fazio’s English, noting how it made for good communication between the two.
However, Fazio’s flaws became evermore apparent as the season played through, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to be in Pochettino’s plans for next year. This saw the club go out and bring in another central defender, the talented Toby Alderweireld. His arrival was exciting for Spurs fans, and as Jan’s compatriot and former Ajax teammate, it will have certainly been good news for Vertonghen too.
The pair had the potential to become the strongest partnership in the league, and by the end of the season, it certainly looked like they’d achieved this. Despite missing two months through injury, Vertonghen still managed 29 League appearances alongside Toby, keeping nine clean sheets in that time, whilst Alderweireld helped the side keep a further four clean sheets in the nine games Vertonghen missed.
The Belgian duo just seemed to click. Both of them were extremely competent, physically adept defenders, with an abundance of quality on the ball and a large amount of chemistry. Almost always on the same wavelength, they helped Spurs achieve a record 3rd place finish in 2015-16, and Jan was arguably back to his best.
For all the good Alderweireld brought with him though, there was one minor downfall to his arrival. Vertonghen’s partner, for the first time in his career was now just as good as, if not better than him. This largely wasn’t an issue, but there were a couple of occasions where it seemed as though Jan was allowing himself to become complacent. For one of the first times in his Premier League career, he had the freedom to play his natural game without the need to constantly be ready to cover his partners mistakes.
There are few things in football rarer than an Alderweireld error, and Vertonghen knew this. It lead to him switching off at times and losing concentration on occasion. Vertonghen’s general play may have now been at its best, but he was now also more prone to an error than ever before. Having Toby alongside him meant that not many of these errors lead to goals, but Tottenham were punished for his complacency a couple of times.
These times include Leicester away, when he inexplicably allowed Riyad Mahrez to cut onto his left foot inside Tottenham’s area, as the Algerian subsequently bent one into the far corner, and Palace away, when his poor clearance found Joel Ward out wide, as he prodded thee resulting cross into his own net. These moments weren’t common at all, but it was still worrying to see them creep into his game.
The following season saw Jan and Toby’s partnership reach another level. Now undoubtedly the best defensive partnership in the league, the two managed to help Spurs to another record points tally, allowing them to finish second, keeping a resounding 17 clean sheets along the way and conceding just 26 goals all season. This defensive record is even more impressive when considering the fact that Alderweireld and Vertonghen both picked up injuries at separate times, meaning Tottenham went around two months of the season without their strongest defensive pairing.
In fact, Alderweireld’s knee injury in October was quite possibly a blessing in disguise. Although this saw him miss almost two months of action, it allowed Vertonghen time in the side without his ever-consistent defensive partner. Jan had to step up. Already one off the senior players in the squad, and vice-captain of the club, Vertonghen displayed further leadership by shrugging off any potential complacency and taking on the responsibility of playing alongside a rather shaky looking Dier who seemed to be unfamiliar in defence after a season at holding midfield.
These games threw Jan into a situation where he could no longer switch off due to the quality of his other centre back, and he didn’t. Spurs maintained their promising defensive record through this period, and Vertonghen proved that he is a more than capable centre back, and isn’t carried by Toby at all.
Another factor in Jan’s improvement was the decision made by Pochettino to switch to a back three. Playing on the left of the three, he suddenly found himself in an even more expansive system than before. He operated almost as a midfielder in possession, keeping possession inside the opposition half and pushing forward when possible. The system almost added another layer of composure to his game, allowing him space and time on the ball, aswell as giving him extra cover in defence. Vertonghen seemed almost tailor-made for this role.
Now, following an impressive opening day clean sheet at St James’ Park, Vertonghen faces potentially the biggest season of his career. At 30 years old, he will be desperate to add trophies to his time at Spurs, and as vice-captain, will likely do all he can to make that happen. In a system that relies on confident, relaxed, ball-playing defenders, Vertonghen ticks all the boxes to continue to thrive in the system, and alongside like-minded defenders like Alderweireld and potentially Davinson Sanchez, Spurs’ defence shows no sign of weakening.
Now more reliable when fit, Vertonghen will be hoping to stay injury free this season as he’s had his fair share of problems recently. If he does manage this however, Spurs fans should expect a great season from the Belgian. One that could quite possibly be his best ever.