It’s often said that after bringing a foreign footballer to the these shores, it always demands something of an adjustment period. That expectations should be capped, as those previously sheltered from the rigors of English football, take several months to cope with the change.
It would appear then, that Jan Vertonghen clearly isn’t too keen on reading scripts and adhering to clichés. As Tottenham Hotspur’s new Belgian centre back has been imperious, since his £10million move from Ajax this summer.
As Daniel Levy appeared set to appoint Andre Villas-Boas to succeed the departing Harry Redknapp earlier this summer, Spurs supporters had already pre-empted a certain degree of change and upheaval, certainly in terms of how the starting XI would look for the new season. The Portuguese’s imminent arrival suggested that a change in Tottenham’s tactical philosophy was now a formality and defensively in particular, the Lilywhite’s were set for a real renovation.
Levy’s shopping list was long and the issues to address within the squad were complex, but he played an absolute blinder with Vertonghen and avoided a potentially damaging element of change. Spurs needed a ball-playing centre half who had the capacity to acclimatize to the English game, yet be comfortable in ushering in Villas-Boas’ new defensive set-up. Fans had already seen the sort of carnage that can be caused when a club doesn’t prepare for change adequately, in AVB’s defensive disaster at Chelsea.
And on paper, Jan Vertonghen appeared to be the perfect addition. The classic traits in the Belgian’s game were there – an imposing physicality and real adeptness in the aerial confrontation, suggested he had the bread and butter skillset to survive in the Premier League.
But the finishing school at Ajax isn’t quite like anything we have on these shores. You don’t break into the first team in Amsterdam unless you can really play football. Their academy is of course fabled, built on the ideologies of Michels, Cruyff et al. From centre-half to defensive midfielder, Ajax’s young players are brought up first and foremost as footballers and Vertonghen is no different. Technically esteemed, eight goals in 31 Eredivisie appearances last season is testament to his ability with the ball at his feet.
His acquisition, despite being announced by Spurs on the 12th July, was long, drawn out and at one point, in real danger of collapse. Wrangling’s between Vertonghen and Ajax over what percentage of the transfer fee the 25-year-old was owed, rumbled on for quite some time. But when he signed, the time for talk was over. Just how long would it take Vertonghen to start firing on all cylinders?
A mixed pre-season suggested that perhaps the Belgian’s immersion into English football would be more in line with the customary, steady but unspectacular process. A clumsy penalty concession against the New York Red Bulls was followed by an unsettling performance against Valencia in the Mestalla. Not cause for concern, but more an acknowledgement that it will take time to for Vertonghen to adjust.
But it’s been noted time and again what a famously inaccurate barometer pre-seaosn form represents. And so it proved. Jan Vertonghen has been superb in his first three games as a Spurs defender.
Andre Villas-Boas seemed happy to spare him in their season’s opener, the 2-1 defeat at Newcastle, in favour of blooding him at White Hart Lane for the West Brom game. Events since suggest that maybe he should have started against the Magpies after all.
Thrown in against Steve Clarke’s side, the crowds in N17 weren’t entirely sure what to expect. All knew that Vertonghen came with a heady reputation, but after the retirement of Ledley King, the injury to Younes Kaboul and the manager’s seeming rejection of Michael Dawson, it’s fair to say that the Belgian was under a fair bit of pressure to perform. His every move was likely to come in for some fair scrutiny. Good job he passed with flying colours then.
Dominant in the air and comfortable on the ground, Vertonghen looks as if he’s been playing for Spurs for years. It may sound like hyperbole, considering Tottenham have leaked three late goals in three consecutive games, but it isn’t entirely representative of the ex-Ajax man’s performances. He played his part, as the entire team did, in a collective jangling of nerves and lack of bottle, as Spurs conceded late against both West Brom and Norwich at home.
But for the most part, Vertonghen has been a picture of real class and composure. He’s been more than comfortable at receiving the ball from Brad Friedel in either acres of space or under pressure and he’s been a crucial component in Spurs’ newfound penchant for keeping possession. It’s hardly as if they were route one under Harry Redknapp, but the occurring diagonal from either Friedel, Dawson or Kaboul, has made way for Vertonghen’s cool pass out to midfield.
Again, Spurs may have baulked late under two late bombardments in their home games, but it certainly wasn’t through lack of trying on Vertonghen’s part. Indeed, in the air against Norwich at White Hart Lane, he was statistically, the most aerially dominant player in Europe, winning 11 out of 12 (92%) of his aerial duels. He can be relied on to do the basics right and roll his sleeves up, as well as the more technical elements that Villas-Boas demands. A trait that has already earned respect in the white half of North London.
And the cherry on the cake for supporters has been the glimpses Vertonghen has given of the other side of his game. The Belgian has shown his ability to drive forward from the heart of defense several times and his previous goal record is no fluke. He has genuine ability and with Sandro’s awareness to fill in for him during his rampages, we shouldn’t see the sort of damage that one Younes Kaboul often inflicted on similar ventures, during his first spell with the club.
Of course, for all his praise, Vertonghen must show he can maintain his superb start to proceedings. There will be several, much harder tests ahead and we’ve seen on countless occasions how a great Premier League start can often be counterbalanced by a mid-season fade.
But from what we’ve seen so far, Spurs fans can be overjoyed with their new centre-half. He hasn’t needed to be eased in to Premier League life or any period of acclimatization. It appears he got that well of the way this summer. Tottenham’s season finally got off the ground with a 3-1 win against Reading on Sunday. If Vertonghen can carry on his early season form, it can’t be long before we finally start seeing those elusive clean sheets.
How do you feel about Jan Vertonghen’s Premier League start? Does he look the real deal or is it too much praise too soon for the big Belgian? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and get the Spurs chat going.