Jan Vertonghen has never quite replicated the buccaneering, goal-grabbing performances of his first season at Tottenham Hotspur and sometimes, it feels as if that skews our judgement of an experienced, ever-reliable defender who – at 31 years of age – is arguably the best left-footed centre-back in the world.
High praise indeed but the competition includes an ageing Giorgio Chiellini and a raft of young players yet to truly prove themselves at elite level – Barcelona’s inconsistent addition Samuel Umtiti, the widely-revered Aymeric Laporte, Atletico’s emerging prospect Lucas Hernandez and 22-year-old Alessio Romagnoli of AC Milan.
While some of that rabble can rightly stake a rival claim, Vertonghen has been the most common member of the best defence in the Premier League during the last two seasons in terms of goals conceded.
That’s as much a consequence of the arrival of Toby Alderwerield, but that in turn highlights exactly what Vertonghen is – the ideal centre-back partner alongside a more domineering and physical accomplice. He naturally suits the lesser fancied left-sided role and for what he lacks in strength and power, he more than makes up for in intelligence and natural footballing ability.
Certainly, Vertonghen is a fantastic footballer in the purest terms, with a fantastic footballing brain in the typical Ajax mould. While that perhaps goes unnoticed too often at centre-back, especially when Alderweireld is alongside him, it stands out more on occasions like yesterday evening when the Belgium international filled in at left wing-back against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Although it must be said few Real Madrid players truly tested Vertonghen despite him being fielded in a secondary role as a consequence of Zinedine Zidane’s diamond, excepting exciting right-back Achraf Hakimi, the 97-cap defender’s statistical returns speak for themselves.
Marshalling the left flank on his own, Vertonghen weighed in with eight tackles, two interceptions and four clearances, while completing 85% of his passes and creating one scoring chance for a team-mate. But it was the experience and balance he showed down the left that truly stood out, especially for a 31-year-old not playing in his best position.
The performance served as a reminder of how talented a player really Vertonghen is, and how he probably doesn’t get as many mentions as he deserves.