When Spurs threatened to come apart at the seams in the dismal 2013/14 campaign, few players’ reputations suffered as much among fans as Jan Vertonghen’s.
Hugo Lloris was a picture of quiet misery, emerging every now and then to pick the ball out of the back of the net before disappearing back behind his sad puppy eyes to daydreams of life in Paris, Madrid, or wherever he could be sure Tim Sherwood wouldn’t be managing next.
But stuck in central defence in a team with no shape or cohesion, and sometimes shunted out to left back due to the shortcomings in the squad that had been assembled out of the wreckage of the Gareth Bale transfer, Vertonghen was more exposed.
Vertonghen’s form, excellent in his first campaign after joining from Ajax, declined. In the 4-0 rout at Stamford Bridge — the fifth time Spurs had conceded three or more goals in a game that season — an atrocious error from Vertonghen was the spark that lit the collapse.
Vertonghen is no stoic, and as the season unravelled, the Belgian was unable to contain his unhappiness: the legend of “Grumpy Jan” was born.
There is a prickliness to the Belgian, and an impression grew that he was someone who saw himself as a man apart. Vertonghen has the misfortune of being an intelligent man in an environment where intelligence — and it truly is a fucking mystery why English football is so shit — is treated with suspicion.
Despite a tradition of ball-playing centrebacks, and more patience with the odd defensive slip than most fanbases, a view developed among the Spurs faithful that Jan may not quite be the fighter that Spurs needed at the back. Too quick to moan, too many aerial challenges lost, too easily brushed aside; beautiful with the ball, but not quite to be trusted. He was a quality player stooping to the level of those around him, rather than a leader who would singlehandledly pick the others up.
Utter bollocks, of course.
It turns out, the problem with Vertonghen wasn’t so much him as it was all the other defenders he was forced to play with, as well as the midfielders in front of him, and the squad-wide absence of discipline, unity and tactics.
In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising that Vertonghen’s form should improve when he went from playing alongside Younes Kaboul and Federico Fazio, and behind Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, to playing alongside Toby Alderweireld in a defence protected by Eric Dier and then Victor Wanyama.
Unfortunately for Jan, his connection with the past robbed him of much of the credit he was due in Tottenham’s excellent 2015/16 campaign. There wasn’t a mention of Vertonghen in any season reviews, despite him being a core part of the league’s joint-stingiest (and comfortably most improved) defence.
For Spurs fans, Vertonghen’s performances weren’t a surprise, rather a reaffirmation of a longstanding belief — that Vertonghen, when in form, is a superb footballer and one of the best defenders in the Premier League. This was the level expected of Vertonghen when he joined from Ajax, which he initially delivered before being caught up in the ebbs and flows to come.
The surprise with Vertonghen came this season. Already looking like a defender in his prime, at the age of 29 and with a new contract in hand, Vertonghen has found another level to go up.
This improvement coincided with Mauricio Pochettino’s switch to three at a back — and in Vertonghen there is one of the purest fits of player to system you will ever see. Vertonghen fits the left-sided centreback role like leather trousers on a WAG — it’s like he was born into it. The role accentuates all of his skills — his ability to carry and play the ball, his ability to read the play — while minimising his aerial and physical short-comings. Already one of the best defenders in the Premier League, this season Jan has stepped up to being one of the best in Europe — try to name a better left-sided defender than Vertonghen, right now. It’s very hard to think of any.
From Grumpy Jan, we now have Happy Jan — a player in the perfect tactical situation, with best mate Mousa Dembele on hand for marathon games of Monopoly between matches.
Does this mean any credit is coming Vertonghen’s way? Unlikely. Praise for Tottenham’s sustained defensive excellence must be divided up among the whole unit — defenders, midfielders and manager — and understandably much of the credit will go to the jaw-droppingly good Alderweireld. When the clickbaitists write their Top Tens and the ex-pros have their Teams of the Week ghost-written, Vertonghen’s name won’t be seen. When the transfer rumours are made up to fill click quotas when international games are on, it’ll be Toby, or Kyle, or Hugo who are linked with “big-money moves” elsewhere.
But at this point, that’s just the way it is for Jan.
Much more important than what the pundits and the elite Twitterati think, Spurs fans understand the step that Vertonghen has taken this season. The reception for Jan is one of the warmest in the stadium before matches, and everyone watching knows how utterly integral he is. The crowd lifts when he is on the ball, and the team clicks.
And that’s all I wanted to say: Jan, we noticed how good you’ve been. And we love it. If you think the noise for Vincent Janssen’s open-play goal was loud, just you wait til you score. The roof will come off — so best do it this season otherwise it’ll be really bloody expensive when we’re at Wembley or New White Hart Lane.
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