This weekend should see the long awaited league debut of Spurs’ brand new centre-half, the highly rated Belgian, Jan Vertonghen. A player deemed to be a seemingly perfect fit for Andre Villas-Boas’ new defensive style, Vertonghen was spared a baptism of fire in the 2-1 defeat away to Newcastle for a warmer welcome in the comforts of White Hart Lane. A lot, however, may rest on the former Ajax-man’s shoulders in the coming weeks.
A home fixture against against West Bromwich Albion hardly represents a walk in the park for any team, but resting Vertonghen against the Magpies on Saturday probably wasn’t the worst decision Villas-Boas has ever made.
The Belgian stopper will face tougher challenges, but you would have thought the foraging Shane Long would offer less of a shock to the system than what Demba Ba might. And it certainly proved that much, too. Spurs played well at St. James Park but Ba was always a handful and his superbly taken goal is testament to that. Vertonghen has done well to start against West Brom without the added pressure of an opening day defeat on his resume.
Although it’s been other events since the trip to Newcastle that have conspired to heap a little more pressure on Vertonghen’s shoulders. The debate about Villas-Boas’ perceived willingness to let fan-favourite Michael Dawson go, has rumbled on over the past 48-hours. The majority are sensibly backing their new manager to the hilt, although that’s not to say the expected loss of such a hugely popular central defender hasn’t hurt a little bit.
There is no way that fans would take any possible spite that Dawson’s exit may have left, out on their new defensive rock, although it does mean the spotlight on Vertonghen is going to shine a little bit brighter.
If Dawson’s talents are rendered to not be in fitting with Villas-Boas’ style or that he simply may not fancy the ex-Nottingham Forest man at the back, than that is fair enough for supporters. Although the assumption must be that Jan Vertonghen has been deemed to be a clearly superior choice for the coming season. In some ways, it’s a leap of faith that you’d expect the manager to take. But the fact it is Dawson who is in all likeliness making way, means the expectation is cranked up a little bit higher.
Both Dawson and Vertonghen possess very conflicting styles of defending and it is Dawson’s style that would potentially see him struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ new defensive set-up. Although the pressure is on for Jan Vertonghen and he needs to hit the ground running.
Optimism seems to be regaining in spades around N17 at the moment and now is not the time to start bringing it back down. Villas-Boas has faced unfair critique from a very vocal minority recently and this seems to have galvanized supporters, building up to what will sure to be a welcome that Villas-Boas will never have seen before. But the stakes will be high against West Brom. Spurs don’t need a second terrible start in two consecutive seasons- especially not with a manager with as much media heat as AVB.
How Jan Vertonghen copes with the expectation will be key to that. As defenders go, he is an extremely talented footballer and fans should have no fears if the ball falls to him under close quarters. He’s not one to panic and he’s certainly a perfect fit for AVB’s preference for a back four that plays it out. Tactically astute, he has the physicality to be able to adjust to the rigors of English football, although he’ll be sure to face a tough examination against Steve Clarke’s men.
Most prominently to Spurs’ hopes for the season however, will be how the defensive shape adapts. Alan Hansen went far too overboard with his crucifixion of Brendan Rodgers’ defense last weekend, although Tottenham could do well to learn from events during Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat.
Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are superb defenders, but their adoption of a new playing style made them both look pretty average last Saturday. Steve Clarke is no fool and whilst he knows Liverpool inside-out during his spell as assistant manager, he knew that a central-defense adjusting to a new shape harbored an element of vulnerability. West Brom pressed and pressed and Liverpool’s defense ultimately wilted under the pressure. Tottenham’s back four should expect no different.
Playing a high line involves all four defenders to be playing in unison and Kyle Walker, William Gallas, Jan Vertonghen and Benoit Assou-Ekotto will have to begin to develop something of a telepathic understanding- for Saturday, anyway. Younes Kaboul’s knee injury sees him miss the visit of the Baggies and whilst Steven Caulker is a genuine talent, Saturday might not be the time to blood him.
There is already an element of risk, no matter how small, in the deployment of Vertonghen. William Gallas isn’t getting any younger and many fans still wake up in cold-sweats thinking about his performance in the 5-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea last season
Although supporters shouldn’t be too adverse to the idea of the Frenchman playing a part this season. He shouldn’t be a starter, but he has been there and done it and there could be few better than a two-time Premier League winning defender to coax Vertonghen through his Premier League debut. Caulker’s time will come, but there is no need to play Vertonghen and Caulker for the sake of it. Villas-Boas doesn’t need and shouldn’t need to be taking any risks at this stage of the season. He just needs wins to get Spurs off to a flying start.
But Jan Vertonghen has a real platform to get his team and his own Premier League career, off to a flying start. The fixture list hasn’t been too harsh on Tottenham for the season’s opening and a run of West Brom (H), Norwich (H) and Reading (A) isn’t a bad bunch of games for the Belgian to get his bearings in English football. A good, steady start will inspire confidence within the team and perhaps most importantly, the defensive unit. Villas-Boas doesn’t need a repeat of his Stamford Bridge disaster, but the likes of Vertonghen are far, far better equipped for the Portuguese than his Chelsea old-boys.
Tottenham supporters must be patient and they have to recognize how potentially volatile such specific tactical changes can be. All the signs are that Spurs can go on to enjoy a superb season under Villas-Boas. All are hoping for a positive result on Saturday and the prospect of Vertonghen making his league debut will give it an extra buzz. He’ll need time to adapt, but the time for talk is over. Let’s see what Spurs’ new centre-half has to offer.
How do you see Spurs’ defensive set-up panning out this season? Excited for Vertonghen’s debut or worried about Kaboul’s loss? Let me know how you see it on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all your Tottenham based views.