Old Folks XI: The quite brilliant Jan Vertonghen

Date published: Wednesday 15th January 2020 2:06 - Sarah Winterburn

Jan Vertonghen Tottenham

The Old Folks XI now moves along the back line to centre-half, and the first of two familiar warhorses born only two days apart. But before we start, a word to Manchester City fans: neither of them is Fernandinho. His age would make him the oldest CB of them all, but he’s only starting now because Aymeric Laporte is injured. He’s a wonder and a legend, and his career deserves a whole book, but under the rules of this series he has to take a back seat. Apologies.

Now to our younger man, who’s a two-position player, having excelled at both left-back and centre-half in his long career. He’s made two PFA Teams of the Year. He’s played in nearly 100 European club matches and started in a Champions League Final. He’s the all-time leader in caps for his country, at 118 and counting. He’s scored at two World Cups, once with his foot and once with his head, the latter beginning a famous comeback. It could only be…

Jan Vertonghen isn’t exactly a goal machine, which is why it’s quite a surprise to find a YouTube video titled ‘Top 10 Goals—Jan Vertonghen’ from his days at Ajax.

In fact, he scored 28 for the club in 220 appearances, and the video shows him with a left foot remarkably like a traction engine.

But that wasn’t the reason Spurs signed him back in the summer of 2012. With injuries (Michael Dawson), retirement (the great Ledley King), age (William Gallas) and youth (Steven Caulker) rendering the back line uncertain, they needed a young, mobile, ball-playing central defender. Vertonghen, 25, Eredivisie Player of the Year and an established Belgium international, was a natural choice.

It was one of the all-time great transfer sagas. He’d been identified as a target months before, with manager Harry Redknapp scouting him when Ajax played at Old Trafford in the Europa League. Spurs definitely wanted Vertonghen, but so did Arsenal. Vertonghen wanted Spurs in part because he was assured of playing time in his favourite position, centre-half. Negotiations dragged on. (Daniel Levy, you know.) There was a last-minute hold-up when Ajax balked at paying Vertonghen a sell-on fee mandated by his contract. By the time the deal got over the line, Redknapp wasn’t even the manager anymore; it was Andre Villas-Boas.

In the end, Spurs got their centre-half – and played him half the time at left-back. Vertonghen had actually begun at Ajax as a defensive midfielder, and played left-back as well, until none other than Martin Jol converted him to centre-half. But it wasn’t until his third year at Spurs that he got to play his preferred position full-time.

Those years have stretched out, and it’s now his eighth season in north London, with 301 appearances in all competitions. Simply put, he’s been fantastic. Not overly strong, not overly fast, he’s done it all with supreme technique. If you’ve got a Spurs fan for a friend, call them up and ask them to share some videos. You’ll see a complete course in intelligent defending: positioning, timing, overall judgment. He’s the Belgian Maldini. Here’s one of several compilations available on YouTube.

Statistics don’t mean much where defenders are concerned, but I’ll hit you with one that does. In 2016/17, Vertonghen led the league in aerial duel percentage, winning 75.7% of his battles. Not excited? Then ask yourself – do you think of Vertonghen as an aerial powerhouse? A Ryan Shawcross, a James Tarkowski, a Nicolas Otamendi? No. Yet he led them all, by anticipation and skill. Incidentally, in that season Tottenham allowed only 26 goals, easily the best defensive record in the club’s entire history.

His first PFA Team of the Year berth came in 2012/13, his very first season, when Spurs finished with what was then their Premier League points record. His second came in 2017/18, during which he turned 31, and delivered probably his greatest season. For me that year he ranked with Cesar Azpilicueta as the best defender in the league.

Spurs fans will have their favourite moments from that year, but the game I remember best was a wild 2-2 draw at Anfield. Liverpool led for most of the match, and because Mauricio Pochettino refused to play it safe, the Reds had any number of great counter-attacking opportunities, particularly in the second half. Vertonghen, tested again and again by the likes of Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, somehow shut down everyone who came near. It was a thrilling exhibition. In the end, he was beaten on a brilliant Salah solo goal in the 91st minute, but that just emphasised how superb he had been throughout.

I also remember the opening match of the following season, when Newcastle put up unexpected resistance at St. James’ Park. Vertonghen scored an early goal off a set-piece, then gave a scintillating man of the match performance in defence as Spurs triumphed 2-1. The stats for that day show four tackles, three interceptions, and 10 clearances; what I remember is that he made every play and made them all look easy. Take a look at this game-saving block:

His international career was quality from the start. He first donned the famous bright red shirt at the age of 20, less than a year after making his first-team debut with Ajax. He’s made at least six international appearances in each of the last 12 years. During the build-up to the most recent World Cup, he became the first Belgian to gain 100 international caps, and as noted, he’s still his country’s all-time leader. (Eden Hazard will pass him soon, but that only figures.)

And those World Cup goals? The first was a nifty bit of play at Brazil 2014, scoring the winner with Belgium down to ten men…

The second was a fluke, but one of the most important flukes in recent World Cup history, the 69th-minute goal which turned the brilliant Belgium-Japan round of 16 match at Russia 2018:

Think he could do that again? Probably not, which is why football is so awesome.

But it has to be said that at Russia 2018 he looked tired. Last season he played well, but mostly below his great form the previous year. This season he’s been showing his age, and the dreaded word ‘decline’ has made its way into fan commentary. Ominously, he was on the bench for last weekend’s match against Liverpool, José Mourinho preferring Davinson Sánchez to partner Toby Alderweireld.

Well, it happens to all of us. There’s a new saga now, because Vertonghen’s contract expires this season. There’s been speculation on all sides, but it’s unlikely the club will offer him more than one year, and maybe not even that. When Spurs and Arsenal originally competed for his signature, he said: “I have a preference for Spurs. I’ve got the best feeling for that club and I’m a ‘feeling person’.” But big-money football has little room for sentiment.

I don’t mind getting sentimental, though: he was one of the best of his generation. He makes our XI not only through longevity, but through excellence. As far as I’m concerned, whichever way he goes out, it’ll be on top. With elegance and precision.

Peter Goldstein

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