Is It Time for Tottenham to Reassess Vertonghen?

Jul 28, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen during training in advance of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick
Jul 28, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen during training in advance of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick /

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Jan Vertonghen has been locked in to a starting position in Tottenham’s defense since he first signed with the club in 2012. Due to injury and general loss of form on the defense’s left flank, he played and impressed at fullback for a good portion of his debut season. That is the position he had occupies for the Belgian national team, so it’s no surprise that he did well there.

Tottenham didn’t buy him for his qualities at leftback however. He was due to be an upgrade at centre-back, ideally replacing the small handful of such players that Tottenham had acquired over past seasons that were not able to partner with Michael Dawson effectively. Indeed, when he did play at centre-back, he continued to do well. It admittedly helped that his performances were often contrasted with Dawson’s drop in form following the introduction of a extremely high line by new coach André Villas-Boas. The England international simply lacked the pace to chase down those opposition attackers that sought to test Tottenham’s offside trap.

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Vertonghen did have that pace. It paired well with his superior anticipation and a penchant for a crucial last ditch tackle. That he’s only earned one red card during his career with Tottenham in all competitions attests to his general effectiveness at avoiding the brash, cynical defensive style that can often come from high lines.

He’s continued to bring those talents to bear after Villas-Boas’ departure from the club. Mauricio Pochettino recognized how well his intelligence complemented his own system’s relatively high line and pressing game. His reputation remained undiminished enough that he was sparred the club’s defensive purge this summer. While Tottenham offloaded Vlad Chiricheș, Younès Kaboul and now possibly Federico Fazio, Vertonghen’s role in the team never seemed in doubt.

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It’s notoriously hard to quantify a defender’s contributions in each game in which he plays. Goals, assists, and key passes certainly help, but they’re not the job a centre-back is brought in to do. Even tackles and interceptions tell us as much or more about the quality of play around the player than they do the man himself. A porous midfield will naturally lead to more work for a centre-back, more opportunities to shine and more opportunities to fail.

Therefore, when we speak of Vertonghen’s qualities, we speak in generalizations. Traits like awareness or intelligence are purposefully vague because while you can provide some anecdotal evidence for them they don’t always show up in the numbers.

For all of those pluses that Vertonghen supposedly brings, the team has still struggled. Their objectively poor defensive performance as a whole last term – and the term before that – inspired Tottenham’s aforementioned purge of centre-backs this offseason. Toby Alderweireld and Kevin Wimmer were brought in to fill that vacuum, presumably under the more sophisticated scouting metric of new Head of Recruitment Paul Mitchell.

Vertonghen’s retention then suggests that the Belgian passed under these new conditions. As fans we’re naturally limited to what we see game to game and do not have access to the models that determine who stays and who goes. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to have doubts about Vertonghen’s role in the team. He makes up one-fourth of the defensive line that proved so detreriminal in sacrificing so many shots and committing so many errors last term after all.

There’s not been much to suggest he’s grown since last season’s disappointing form either. Against Manchester United and Stoke he was a borderline liability for Tottenham, less for what he did do and more for what he didn’t. Gone were his characteristically tight tackling and interception game, replaced by questionable positioning and ineffective marking. He might not have scored an own goal for United like Kyle Walker or conceded a penalty against Stoke like Alderweireld, but he didn’t turn in a quality enough performance to prevent or balance those failures either.

Which is a lot to expect from the player admittedly. As the senior member of that crucial centre-back pairing though Vertonghen should be wielding more influence, keeping the backline tight and on-message. That Alderweireld – penalty notwithstanding – seems set to be the more important of the two says a lot. If his Belgian international teammate can adapt to Pochettino’s system in less than a month, why isn’t Vertonghen thriving?

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It’s fair to assume that Vertonghen was asking himself this question even before the rest of us. Against Leicester Saturday he quietly turned in an impressive performance. Though the East Midlands club wasn’t exactly proactive in their attacks the same way that United and Stoke were, he still managed to exert his authority over the game and put up decent numbers to boot.

He recorded more tackles and aerial duels won per WhoScored than he had in both previous games combined. His three interceptions were only two less than his prior season total. This significant uptick was in part down to how formidable an opponent Vertonghen had in Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez, but it also suggests a player with something to prove.

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  • However rare Leicester’s attacks were, Vertonghen often was the first and last line of defense. His interceptions were all outside the 18 yard box, two bordering on the midfield area according to FourFourTwo Statzone’s depiction. His successful tackles were all inside the box. His aerial duels were won just in the area where Leicester hoped to connect with Mahrez’s forward runs. As we said above, these types of stats don’t always give us an accurate depiction of the individual, but here they at the very least suggest a player who has upped his game to the occasion.

    The most significant dents in all this praise, of course, was the foul on Mahrez that should have earned the home side a penalty just before halftime and the fact that when the Algerian scored later in the game it was despite Vertonghen’s marking. For all the poor decision making and lack of technique involved in the earlier challenge, it was the exception rather than the rule on the day. As for the goal, it was an impressive shot by Mahrez and would have been difficult to stop without another penalty call.

    It’s easy to imagine that perhaps Vertonghen only saw Wimmer and Eric Dier below him on the depth chart prior to the season and consequently didn’t feel his job was particularly at risk. After United won and Stoke came back from being 2-0 down to draw, that gulf between him and that pair narrowed considerably. Given Tottenham’s suddenly ruthlessness with the roster this summer, it’s not out of the question that the club drop whichever players are not jiving with Pochettino’s system however senior they might be.

    Hopefully Vertonghen can sustain his performance at Leicester City when Tottenham face off against Everton on Saturday. He’s survived on the team for these three years for good reason. It would be a shame – for both the player and the club – if he should falter now.

    Next: Hot Takes: Leicester City 1 - 1 Tottenham