Jan Vertonghen was a big fan’s favourite during his first season at Spurs. Signed from Ajax, he looked every bit as smooth and silky an operator as you’d expect from a product of the famous Dutch club.
Last season the lustre started to fade. In a tough campaign in which Tottenham underwent a change in management and suffered several heavy defeats, Vertonghen’s performances and lack of mental strength were disappointing. While Spurs’ other senior player Hugo Lloris retained his high standards despite the turmoil surrounding him, Vertonghen let his slip and looked to have zero appetite for a fight.
Vertonghen’s third season at White Hart Lane saw him get back on track. He was in and out of the starting line-up during Mauricio Pochettino’s first few weeks as manager but it soon became clear that the defence looked stronger when the Belgian was present.
He was in fine form for a big chunk of the season but recently the errors have started to creep back into his game. It could be a simple case of fatigue. Because the defence looked so shaky when Vertonghen was rested, he had to play in a lot of games over the busy periods of Christmas and early 2015, having starred in the World Cup for his country this summer.
Yet there is a nagging doubt with Vertonghen that though he looks a fine player when the going is good, he is not the leader Tottenham need in defence when things gets tough. After the recent 3-0 mauling at Old Trafford, the Sky pundits asked why rookie defender Eric Dier was tasked with looking after the dangerous Maroune Fellaini from set-pieces. As the senior member of the back four, they wondered why Vertonghen hadn’t taken the initiative and dealt with Fellaini himself.
The normally impressive Dier looked seriously out of sorts in that game and had no idea how to handle Fellaini’s forays from the inside-left position. Vertonghen should be the man to guide him through these challenging times.
As a long-term combination Dier and Vertonghen look too similar to one another to consistently provide defensive stability. Dier is the one with youth on his side and the greater potential to grow as both footballer and a leader.
With the likes of Vlad Chiriches and Younes Kaboul likely to be sold this summer it might be risky to try to cash in on Vertonghen at this stage, though Napoli are said to be considering a bid for the defender who is contracted to the club until 2018. If they can make a sizeable profit on a defender approaching his late twenties, they might have a decision to make.
Vertonghen is a lovely footballer but he’s not the sort of defender that you build a back four around. He’s the player that you slot in alongside a pure defender – the sort that takes no prisoners, is physically imposing and leads the defence. For now, that’s a player that Tottenham are still looking for.