Jan Vertonghen has played 271 games for Tottenham Hotspur since signing from Ajax in 2012. During that time he has captained the side, scored nine goals and even been named Premier League Player of the Month. And yet he has never played better than he did last night.
Spurs were hardly short of heroes after this 3-0 victory over Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, which surely ranks among the finest performances of the Mauricio Pochettino era. Son Heung-min scored again. Harry Winks was sublime. And Hugo Lloris produced one of the best saves of his career to deny Dan-Axel Zagadou from point-blank range.
However, nobody was as singularly influential as Vertonghen, who created Tottenham’s opening goal with a laser-guided deep cross at the start of the second-half, before volleying home late on. Just how many other centre-backs in world football would have converted Serge Aurier’s cross in such emphatic fashion, and at such a pivotal point in the game?
Not that he was playing centre-back, of course. Instead, Pochettino deployed him as an auxiliary left wing-back in the absence of Danny Rose, tasked with helping Toby Alderweireld to stop Jadon Sancho, while also waved forward at every opportunity. It was a big ask. And Vertonghen responded with the best European performance from a Spurs left-back since Gareth Bale demolished reigning champions Inter Milan in 2010.
Vertonghen’s tactical flexibility embodies this Tottenham’s team adaptability. Against Dortmund, Spurs were missing arguably their two most influential players, with Vertonghen not the only member of the team to be asked to play out of position. Still they flourished. For this, Pochettino deserves great credit.
“I think that sometimes people underestimate us,” Pochettino said with a wry smile after the match yesterday. “What with everything that has happened, the team is still there, fighting and getting results. Their effort this season has been amazing.” In fact, Spurs have won six of their eight games since Kane injured his ankle ligaments in last month’s loss to Manchester United — the sign of an incredibly strong squad.
Tottenham’s underappreciated squad depth was on evidence again last night. But this game was also a personal triumph for Vertonghen, who both scored and assisted for just the second time in his career, after a 2-1 win over Swansea in March 2013.
Only this week, the 31-year-old was speaking with disarming honesty about approaching the end of his career. “Every year is a year closer to the end of my career and you want to enjoy these games,” he said at Tuesday’s pre-match press conference. “But I have to admit I feel the best I've ever felt physically.”
Vertonghen deserves the praise and plaudits that will come his way. The Belgian has overcome early questions over his defensive ability and temperament to become one of Tottenham’s most consistent performers, forming an outstanding partnership with former Ajax team-mate Alderweireld and filling in capably and selflessly when asked to play elsewhere across the back.
Wednesday night was then his night — while also an exhilarating demonstration of just how many standout performers this Tottenham squad contains.
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