Left-footed centre-halves are something of a rare breed. In fact, left-footed players are in general – which is why most find themselves utilised further forward in more advanced positions rather than the heart of the defence, or at the very least left-back – roles where having a natural left-footer is pretty much essential.
But in terms of balance to the team, having a left-footed centre-half can be a huge advantage, especially amid an era in which defenders are encouraged to play out of the back with greater bravery and purpose than ever before, and even more so amid an era in which possession – for most top teams, at least – has become the aim of the game.
And thus, there’s a curious question to answer here; who is currently the best left-footed centre-half in the world? A centre-back who not only fulfils his defensive duties to an imperious degree indiscriminate to a right footer, but also gives his side that extra dose of balance and quality in possession? Perhaps there’s a Premier League bias here, but Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen is a pretty strong candidate.
That’s in part due to the nature of defender the Belgium international has become during his time in north London. When he arrived, his ball-playing qualities were so impressive that there were calls for the former Ajax man to be deployed in central midfield. While Vertonghen’s maintained that ability though, he’s also changed his game to meet the demands of the Premier League, something that’s become particularly prevalent this season without Toby Alderweireld alongside him.
Rather than simply the tidy partner alongside a bullish, archetypal centre-back, Vertonghen can be the dominant one as well – challenging powerful strikers in the air, jostling with them on the ground and weighing in with shin-shattering tackles. That combination of Vertonghen’s impressive Ajax pedigree and the embracing of the physicality of English football has rightly earned him a place in this season’s PFA Team of the Year.
And the competition for being the best left-footed centre-back in the world, at this moment in time, isn’t exactly convincing. Vertonghen met a formidable rival in this season’s Champions League quarter-final with Juventus, Giorgio Chiellini, who produced one of his typical warrior-like displays against Spurs at Wembley.
But Chiellini’s coming to the end of his heyday, celebrating his 34th birthday in August, and probably isn’t quite as dominant as he was a few years ago when some tipped him as the best centre-half in the world.
After that, the strongest argument on the side of other left-footed centre-halves in contention for the crown of the world’s best is youthfulness and longevity. That’s perhaps best epitomised by the only other truly strong candidate, Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti.
Powerful, quick and capable in possession, he’s got a bit of everything. But his form has divided opinion since moving to the Nou Camp, and the 24-year-old was culpable for Portugal’s late winner against France in the Euro 2016 final – backing off Eder to allow the one-time Swansea forward enough space to sneak a short at goal.
He’s developed since then, but if Chiellini’s a declining great then Umtiti is still merely one in the making. Vertonghen, after celebrating his 31st birthday earlier this week, strikes a happy medium in between.
Statistically too, when compared to the most revered left-footed centre-backs from Europe’s top five leagues this season, Vertonghen stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Admittedly, the numbers never paint the full picture of what happens on the pitch and in the interests of balance, there are some talented players missing from our comparison; Alessio Romagnoli often impressed for AC Milan and has been strongly linked with several Premier League clubs, Manchester City have just spent £57million on Aymeric Laporte and Inigo Martinez has built a solid reputation for himself in La Liga.
Yet none of those are established and proven top-class players in the same way as Vertonghen, and the Tottenham defender’s returns this season speak for themselves. From the seven performance categories we’ve looked at, he ranks first for per match averages in four of them, second in one and third in another. In fact, the only category where he hasn’t excelled this season is blocks per game.
And the two categories where Vertonghen has shone brightest once again allude to the idea of left-footed centre-halves combining defensive ability with quality in possession.
His return for dribbles per game and forward passes highlight how the 99-cap international has built so many attacks for Spurs this season, often winning the ball back through a tackle or interception before putting his side on the front foot with the right pass. Chiellini and Umtiti are both fantastic defenders, but neither have proved capable of that with quite the same consistency that Vertonghen has shown this season.
So, is Vertonghen – who Transfermarkt value at £28.8million – the best left-footed centre-back in the world? Let us know by voting below…