Man City manager Pep Guardiola sparked uproarious protest among fans when he referred to Tottenham as “the Harry Kane team” earlier this season. Mauricio Pochettino was furious with the comments, and enraged fans took to social media to wax lyrical about the depth of talent in the Spurs squad. They eschewed the brilliance of Dele Alli, the craftsmanship of Christian Eriksen, the steel of Toby Alderweireld and the agility of Hugo Lloris. But one man that did not get much of a mention was Jan Vertonghen, a player that is rarely given the praise he deserves.
Alderweireld’s defensive partner and Belgium teammate has been a rock once again at the heart of the Tottenham defence this season. He has played more games for the club than any other player during the campaign so far, and that includes Kane, Alli and Eriksen. Without Vertonghen, Spurs would not be challenging for a top four spot right now. Kane is always in the limelight because he is the one sticking the ball in the back of the net, but Vertongen has been equally important for Tottenham this season. His job is by no means as glamorous, but were it not for his hard work at the back Spurs would be in all kinds of trouble right now.
With Alderweireld out injured since October, Vertonghen has been the only real dependable presence in a struggling defence. He has lined up next to the inexperienced trio of Davinson Sanchez, Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, and has been absolutely carrying them. Last season he had Alderweireld, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose alongside him and Spurs had the best defensive record in the league and came within a whisker of winning the title. Walker has gone and the other two have been long-term absentees, so it has fallen upon Vertonghen to lead the defence, and he has done so with aplomb.
Sure, he has made mistakes along the way, but every centre-back does. That is the nature of the beast when you are up against top-class attacking talent on a weekly basis. But overall Vertonghen has been supremely consistent and has marshalled his raw teammates well. He was on another level when Spurs beat Man Utd 2-0, keeping £75 million man Romelu Lukaku firmly in his pocket and rebuffing the efforts of Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard time after time. However, it was Eriksen that walked away with the man of the match award after he scored the opener.
Vertonghen is not the quickest central defender, but his reading of the game is peerless. He is extremely robust and fantastic in the air, leading him to win 3.2 aerial duels per game this season, more than any other Spurs player by a long distance. He is the embodiment of the word solid, and does not have any real weaknesses. Vertonghen always seems to be two steps ahead of everyone else, allowing him to thwart danger before it even materialises. That is a magnificent quality in a defender. It would not be hyperbole to call the Belgian centre-back a world-class defender, as he would by no means be embarrassed alongside the likes of Gerard Pique, Leonardo Bonucci and Jerome Boateng.
He is also superb on the ball for a central defender, typically launching Tottenham’s counter-attacks by carrying the ball forward and picking out a teammate. He has proven his versatility by thriving on the right and the left sides of defence for Tottenham this season when called upon, and has put in some crosses that the likes of Eriksen would be proud of.
Vertonghen was brilliant in the 4-0 win over Everton and in the 4-1 win over Liverpool, among many other great performances in the Premier League this season. He also rose to the challenge of facing Real Madrid and guided Tottenham to a famous victory over Los Blancos at Wembley, keeping Karim Benzema quiet throughout. He is still only 30 years old and should enjoy several more years at the top alongside Alderweireld. His partner has just returned from the lengthy layoff and that is great news for Tottenham’s run-in.
Davinson Sanchez is blessed with raw talent but is a long way off being the finished article and has not quite adapted to the rigours of the Premier League yet. Alderweireld represents an upgrade on the young Colombian, and Spurs can enjoy a great end to the season if they have their Belgian duo fighting fit at the heart of defence. It will also be great for the Belgium team and as you can see they are highly rated heading into the World Cup. But be sure to pay Vertonghen his due if Tottenham’s defensive record improves when Alderweireld returns, because he is an unsung hero at the heart of this extremely strong backline.