With the best defence in the league, it’s hardly a shock that the players central to Tottenham’s new found solidity at the back are being lauded as widely as they are, all the while being linked with big money moves to clubs with endless resources and inferior talent.
Hugo Lloris been linked with a move away from Spurs from the very moment he arrived at the club, and the same can be said of Toby Alderweireld, too. Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – the twin reasons behind the success of Mauricio Pochettino’s dalliances with playing three at the back – have been through the rumour mill themselves, with the South Yorkshire duo quite comfortably the two outstanding players in the their position in the division on current form.
Jan Vertonghen, however, has been celebrated far less. What’s been missed is that, to allow the other players around him to flourish, Vertonghen has actively remodelled his game to be far more measured and conservative, sacrificing his own instincts to attack and roam for the greater good of the team.
A drastic change, his arrival from Ajax was underlined by his tag as a goalscoring defender, and he more than lived up to his billing in his first season at the club. Not only the primary target from set plays, he would often carry the ball out of defence at speed, play a one-two with a man in space and continue on his run in to the box - sort of like you would if you were 5-0 up on FIFA against one of your mates, and really intent on pissing them off as much as possible.
An all-action centre half, he quickly won fans over with his positive ball playing style, diving in to clean slide tackles, blocking shots at will and overnight emergence as the leader of Tottenham’s defence.
That said, however, his first few years were marred by managerial changes, loss of momentum and a lack of talent around him. Much like many others, if it weren’t for the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, he’d likely have moved on from the club after the Tim Sherwood fiasco, and few could’ve blamed him. After all, it’d taken Spurs under a year to go from aspirational club with a vision to being about as appealing as flying with United Airlines, and Vertonghen still had his best years ahead of him.
Having adapted his game, Vertonghen has gone from lead singer of the band to rhythm guitarist and, to his credit, it’s been with minimal fuss. Usually in these sorts of situations there are rumours of dissatisfaction and agents will leak stories to the press to alert other clubs of a player’s availability, but in this case, it’s a change that’s come to pass without so much as a whisper.
Naturally, of course, it helps that Vertonghen hasn’t had to adjust his game to accommodate just anybody – his partnership with Toby Alderweireld predates their Tottenham days, and it just goes to show how good the players are together that they’re able to tweak performances accordingly to get the best possible results.
The sacrifices Vertonghen has made in his game withstand not only an eye test for those that have watched him play these past few years, but are also born out in the numbers he’s producing. In his first few seasons, he averaged his highest number of tackles, interceptions, clearances, shots and goals per-game in his Tottenham career, while those figures are far more reserved now.
In their place, he now wins more aerial duals than he ever has done previously, dives in to far less tackles and has drastically toned the erratic nature of how he both passes and shoots. In fact, where distribution is concerned, he’s actually passing the ball further, forwards and more frequently than he ever has done in the past, illustrating the journey he’s made from maverick to role player.
As well as just reflecting well on himself, his change in performance and behaviour is yet another success for Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team. Around the time of Andre Villas-Boas leaving the club and Tim Sherwood being brought in, Vertonghen’s level of performance drastically fell, and it was visibly more to do with effort and care than it was ability.
While some targeted him directly, questioning his body language, commitment and attitude, it’s clear from both the fallout from that period and the subsequent change in Vertonghen’s general demeanour that whatever the issue was had far more to do with a wider issue present within the club at the time, rather than being individual.
One of many first team players to have extended his deal with the club, Vertonghen has spent his prime years with Tottenham, and while links with the likes of a move to Barcelona still come-and-go whenever there’s a slow news day, his immediate future in to his early 30s has had an anchor attached to it.
It’s understandable, given the other transformations at the club over the past few years, that Vertonghen hasn’t received the credit he deserves. The story of an attack-minded defender accepting that less is more doesn’t quite arouse attention in the same way Dele Alli or Harry Kane do, but in the wider scheme of things, it’s no less important.
Upon signing his deal in December, the player himself might’ve put it best when he said: “It feels great to be a little part of the big part Tottenham is”, acknowledging his position within a growing club. While his first year coincided with the club’s highest ever Premier League points total and the emergence of Gareth Bale as one of the greatest players on the planet, it didn’t take long for that particularly journey to hit a few fairly severe speed bumps.
Back when he first joined in 2012, he would have been sold on a project detailing a new stadium build, aspirations of regular Champions League football and, in time, being part of the conversation where league titles are concerned. Five years later, it looks as if Spurs are finally looking to make good on that vision.