Jan Vertonghen could be forgiven for feeling slightly lost out in the BayArena on Tuesday night. Since the start of last season, Vertonghen has played 44 games for Tottenham. But this one, at Bayer Leverkusen, was the first without his great friend and team-mate Toby Alderweireld alongside him.
Vertonghen and Alderweireld have played together for years, for Ajax, Belgium, and now for Spurs. They are one of the best centre-back pairs in the European game. But Alderweireld is injured after colliding with Vertonghen at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. And so in Germany on Tuesday, Vertonghen had to play alongside Eric Dier instead. But they got through it, despite a few nervous moments, taking a crucial clean sheet and point back to London.
“Toby and I have such a good thing, I’ve been playing with him for eight years now, for the national team and at club level,” Vertonghen said. “To be honest, it worked very well with Eric Dier as well. We spoke before the game, apart from the group, and discussed a couple of things about Leverkusen’s strikers, that they play 4-4-2, and how to cover each other. It turned out very well.”
For Spurs to survive without their best centre-back, as well as their best striker, says something about the depth and grit of a squad that was often suspected to have neither. They will not have too many harder games this season than Bayer Leverkusen away but they survived and took a point, with no Alderweireld and no Harry Kane.
Vertonghen has been at Spurs since 2012 and so he remembers the chaos and brittleness of the Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood eras. They now feel very long ago indeed. Looking back, Vertonghen was proud of the new maturity in this Spurs side, the ability to soak up setbacks such as injuries while not losing their focus. Spurs used to be too easily beaten, and beaten badly, but not anymore.
“Before, we might have lost this game,” Vertonghen reflected. “Maybe it changed last year, and now we can draw. Sometimes you have to take a draw. These are games that we might have lost a couple of years ago, but now we can get a draw that can get us qualification for the next round. I think we showed some real maturity.”
The fact that Spurs have got results this season without Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane too pointed, for Vertonghen, to a strength in depth that has not been there before. “We have shown [that we can cope without Alderweireld],” Vertonghen said. “It was the same with Harry. People said it about Hugo, but Michel [Vorm] showed we could cope against Liverpool. And Eric showed it here. There is a strength to this team. Especially after the transfer window, some great players came in. We can miss almost everyone – obviously not eight or nine players – the squad is so strong.”
Vertonghen said that Spurs’ squad is as good as any other in the Premier League, and they have the rare luxury of good players in every position who have the manager’s trust. Pochettino brought on Mousa Dembele and Moussa Sissoko, his best midfielder and his record signing, in the final minutes, to see out the draw. That is a sign of strength.
One man who did not make the bench on Tuesday night, though, and whose faith from the manager is in some doubt, is Kevin Wimmer. He has made one appearance all season, in the EFL Cup against Gillingham. Cameron Carter-Vickers has moved ahead of him in the pecking order and it was telling how the injury to Alderweireld has done little for Wimmer’s prospects. Even after he made 20 starts last season.
Asked about Wimmer’s situation on Tuesday night, Pochettino abruptly insisted that the Austrian international was not on his way out. “He is in my plans,” Pochettino said. “If he is not in my plans, I tell you quickly, but first I tell the player. He is in my plans. When I put him on the bench, another player would need to be put out.”
Pochettino said that it was in pursuit of the right balance that he could not find a place for Wimmer on the bench on Tuesday night. “I'm the manager and I always need to find balance on the bench. Ben Davies can play as a centre-back or as a full-back. I need another right-footer, not another left-footer. If something happens with Dier or Tripper, I need a right footer. So the decision is to give balance to the bench and the team if something happens.”Reuse content