During this summer’s transfer window, the protracted transfer of Jan Vertonghen from Ajax to Tottenham Hotspur, was in real danger of becoming saga like in its negotiations. Indeed, depending on whom you speak to, the deal to take the 25-year-old was at one point close to collapse all together.
Remarkably, less than 10 games into his White Hart Lane career, the prospect of the big Belgian staying away from N17, already feels like an unimaginable horror.
You can take your pick at the precise moment the new star was born in North London. Was it that tackle on Junior Hoilett, which would have had Ledley King standing up in his seat? Was it the sight of him running 70 yards against West Brom just to get on the end of a Gareth Bale cross? Or what about the second minute goal against Manchester United that set Spurs on their way to a first victory at Old Trafford for 23 years?
It’s a term that is batted about with such little care these days, but Jan Vertonghen has been a genuine revelation since his £10million move from Ajax this summer. Tottenham have been screaming out for what feels like an eternity for a stable, consistent and most importantly talented central defender, to ease their backline woes.
The retirement of Ledley King broke the hearts of supporters, but it was in many ways a necessary heartbreak. It was only once the King had gone that Spurs could ever realistically invest in a new centre half who wouldn’t be asked to play on the premise their club captain wasn’t fit. It seems all the more remarkable that with the added scrutiny of King’s looming shadow, Vertonghen hasn’t even needed to entertain the slightest form of comparison.
Because Spurs haven’t just inherited a man with all the attributes needed to be a top defender in this league, they’ve inherited a genuine footballer as well. Preened in the immortal Ajax academy, Vertonghen fits the mould of a ball playing centre half that Andre Villas-Boas craves, but not at the deficiency of the bread and butter. From what we’ve seen so far, he rarely seems to get caught out of position, he’s a superbly timed tackler and most importantly, he loves an aerial duel – against Norwich, he won more confrontations in the air than any other defender in Europe that weekend.
Combined with a love for surging forward – the Belgian scored an absurd eight league goals in the Eredivisie last season – he’s become an instant terrace hero for supporters. Anyone who was at Old Trafford will testify after a ten-minute rendition of: “He came from Amsterdam, to play for Totting-ham.”
But as purely bizarre as the concept may seem, does his wide-ranging talents and eclectic skillset actually give his new manager something of a headache?
Because as we’ve seen so far, such has been Vertonghen’s versatility, he’s been more than able to play as both a full-back and a centre-half. The school of thought was that the Belgian could play at left-back if he needs must as he has done for the national team. But his performances in the berth while wearing a Spurs shirt, suggest that he isn’t quite some auxiliary figure at left-back.
It’s easy to get carried away, but even though his time as a left-back for Tottenham has amounted to only one and a half games, supporters have been blown away we’ve what they’ve seen so far. Vertonghen has offered a level of solidity that for all his attacking prowess, fans just haven’t seen from Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Further still, the level of power and dominance he exhibits when he goes forward, is simply a joy to watch. The sight of Manchester United’s backline physically bouncing off Spurs’ number five was one of marvel, but he has that rare capacity to combine power with guile. To describe his left foot as cultured, is something of an understatement.
Whether or not he can sustain that performance at left-back all season remains to be seen, but it has thrown up something of a dilemma for Villas-Boas. Assou-Ekotto remains one of the most endearing figures in White Hart Lane, but his performances at the start of this season, were poor at best.
The Cameroonian can be one of the best in the business on his day, but a lingering inconsistency and a penchant for indulging in the bizarre have left supporters in a haze of frustration over the past few years. The concept that Spurs’ first choice centre-half is potentially also their most talented left-back, is a very uneasy one indeed.
But the fact is that Vertonghen remains a centre-half by name and he must remain Tottenham’s centre-half by nature. If Tottenham are going to push on this season under AVB, they need to try and devise a watertight foundation of which to build upon. Now they’ve finally found the perfect candidate to offer a long-term solution at the heart of defense, they can’t start shifting him about to cover other weak points in the side. He will always look more spectacular at full-back, but Spurs don’t need that. They need a rock of which to rely upon.
Such is the wealth of central defensive options, the temptation will always be there to place Vertonghen on the left hand side. But despite his showing against United, William Gallas is 35-years-old. Michael Dawson will always remain a fans favourite but it’s clear that Villas-Boas doesn’t fancy him and his performance against Panathinaikos did nothing to inspire confidence. Younes Kaboul may not be able to play a part until well into the new year and although Steven Caulker is the future, he must be developed in sync with Vertonghen next to him – not in his periphery.
The season remains in its infancy and Vertonghen has a long way to go this season. Although we’ve seen enough to gauge that Spurs have picked up one hell of a gifted defender. While injuries continue to play their part, Vertonghen should by all means be deployed at full-back, but as no more than a short-term solution. If their left-back woes continue, than January is the time to address them. Both Vertonghen’s future and Tottenham Hotspur’s, rely on him staying at centre-half.
Would you play Jan Vertonghen at centre-half or deploy him at left-back? Let me know what you’d do on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus for all things Tottenham.