By Jay Jaffa
There is a new star at White Hart Lane: a smooth operating, versatile Belgian schooled at Ajax and on the verge of capturing the hearts of the Tottenham faithful. Jan Vertonghen may have only played five games for the club but his performance against QPR on Sunday further confirmed what many observers were already thinking; Spurs have found a gem of a defender.
As a club, Tottenham certainly like to be associated with playing football the 'right' way; with panache, grace and a style established by the likes of Cliff Jones, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.
And for the last 13 years, in the darker moments, the mammoth figure of Ledley King stood as the beacon, the last line of defence both literally and figuratively.
His sad and inevitable retirement this summer left a meatier, more gritty Spurs defence as bruisers such as Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and even Steven Caulker prepared to take up the mantel. Yet, Vertonghen's arrival and subsequent ease at which he has settled into life at the club have echoes of the original King of White Hart Lane.
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He competed aggressively in the air and distributed the ball methodically, always to a white shirt, even with Mark Hughes' side dominating proceedings.
In the second half he was shifted to left-back in a tactical switch that proved decisive. Vertonghen plays here regularly for his country but this would have been his first chance to really stretch his legs along the left touchline at Spurs.
He was adventurous, often linking up well with Gareth Bale and troubled Kieron Dyer and Shaun Wright-Phillips on a number of occasions. But there were two memorable moments that stood out.
Firstly, he orchestrated the charge, breaking instinctively, with deceptive pace before teeing up Bale in the lead up to what proved to be the match-winning goal. Then, in the defensive third – presumably his realm, though it is hard to be sure – he pounced on Junior Hoilett to stab the ball to safety, just as the Canadian looked set to equalise. “Tackle of the season” was bandied about in the press box and it was hard to disagree.
Of course, many will look at the opening goal and point out that it was Vertonghen who lost Bobby Zamora – an entirely valid assessment and one that harks back to his lengthy education in Amsterdam.
He spent nine years from the age of 15 at the club learning his trade and flitting between different positions. His versatility was well deployed in north London on Sunday but in his younger years threatened to label him as 'just' a stop-gap player; a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
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His breakthrough came under Marco van Basten and alongside another familiar name in north London - Thomas Vermaelen – before he established himself as the key component in Frank de Boer's backline.
But there were teething problems and though the similarities between manager and defender were obvious, Vertonghen was occasionally clumsy in the challenge and naïve positionally. Against QPR he was magnificent for 89 minutes but lax for one and in this more testing climate, he can be punished.
The two seasons spent with De Boer did vastly improve him and although he is still not the finished product, the two title-winning years at Ajax accelerated his progress.
He was named Dutch Footballer of the Year as Ajax retained their title last year and De Boer spoke about him in glowing terms: “He is perhaps the best player in the league. With his power, passing, positional sense, pace and ability to score goals, there’s no one better.”
He is, of course, still to open his account for Spurs and that contributes to the underlying feeling that Vertonghen has yet to truly show the full range of abilities. Last season as Ajax captain he netted eight Eredivisie goals – the most from a defender since De Boer in 1994-95. He is a threat from set-pieces, whether he is taking them or finding room in the box for an effort on goal.
The ease and presence of mind he displayed as he carried the ball from the halfway line to the penalty box on Sunday was impressive but that comes from experience – he has moved that very way many times before.
It was rare at Ajax to not see him collect the ball and meander his way up the field – British observers would have noticed that very trait when Ajax impressed at Old Trafford last year. It is a hallmark of his game and something Andre Villas-Boas is no doubt encouraging.
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In many ways it is a shame not to see King under the tutelage of Villas-Boas, but in Vertonghen Spurs have a composed, ball-playing centre-half who carries the air of calm the now-retired defender exuded in his every action.
Vertonghen is chatty and charming when we speak to him after the game and he gave the impression that he will be here for sometime. He effused about his 'love' for the Premier League and praised his manager for the half-time shake up that turned the game on its head before nonchalently shrugging off a question about his ability to move to left-back.
Much like King, Vertonghen is taking everything in his stride. It is early days but he has already outgrown his minder, William Gallas and emits confidence in the heat of battle.
And while King now fills a role as the club's ambassador off the pitch, Vertonghen is fast becoming the ambassador for the brand of football the club has built, on it.
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