Jan Vertonghen on Tottenham’s cup struggles: ‘You just need to win one trophy, then you can win more’

Interview: Tottenham’s ever-dependable defender says Spurs’ difficulty in climbing to the top step of the rostrum has not damaged the club’s shared vision under Mauricio Pochettino

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Saturday 28 April 2018 20:02 BST
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Jan Vertonghen will not question Tottenham's vision despite another year without a trophy
Jan Vertonghen will not question Tottenham's vision despite another year without a trophy

Ask Jan Vertonghen who he thinks is the world’s best player in his position, and after a short pause for thought, the answer arrives. “For me, it might be [Sergio] Ramos,” he says. “If you see how many games he’s played – over 150 for Spain, and close to 600 for Madrid, and he didn’t even start playing there. I like consistency in defenders. And he shows that.”

Vertonghen mentions consistency a lot. Perhaps it is simply a function of his character: even, measured, laid-back, dependable, a welcome contrast to the high-pitched histrionics that seem to characterise elite football these days. It is what has contributed to perhaps the most consistent season of his career, marshalling the defence in the absence of his friend Toby Alderweireld and becoming an indispensable cog in the Tottenham machine.

His manager Mauricio Pochettino believes he has become “the complete defender”, and has even suggested he is capable of playing until the age of 40. Vertonghen turned 31 earlier this week, and seems to have hit that pleasant sweet spot of fitness, experience and confidence. “Without sounding arrogant, I feel like I’ve had a very good season,” he says. “I believe I always had the quality, but wasn’t in the right place to use that quality. Tottenham have put me in the right place, physically and mentally.”

Consistency has also been the theme of Tottenham’s season, or rather the absence of it. Once more, they are about to qualify for the Champions League; a win at home to Watford on Monday night would virtually seal the deal. But once more they will end the season empty handed, after twice throwing a lead at Wembley in a crucial knockout game. For Juventus in March in the Champions League round of 16, read Manchester United last weekend in the FA Cup semi-final. Climbing to the top step of the rostrum is proving harder than first imagined.

“It was a massive disappointment,” Vertonghen says of the United defeat. “We dominated the game, apart from 10 to 15 minutes. It was a disappointment because this group feels we deserve to be in a final, to win a trophy, and it’s a shame we didn’t.”

Vertonghen has won plenty in his career. The trouble is, he did it all at Ajax, where he began his career as a teenager, and where trophies are not simply hoped for, but demanded. “The pressure there was massive,” he says. “In your head, you had to be winning a trophy every year. It was even bigger pressure, because we hadn’t won for five years, and then won a cup, and then people started believing, and then we won the league, then we won it again.

“It’s difficult to pin it down. But I feel you just need to win one trophy, then you can win more. The hardest to win is the first.”

In the league, Tottenham proved no match for a rampant Manchester City, and in hindsight their autumn slump – a run of just one win in seven in domestic competition between October and December – proved a decisive brake on their momentum. It is why, Vertonghen believes, Tottenham need to improve again next season, simply to maintain their threat. “We always have this month where we haven’t won a couple of games in a row,” he says. “We’ve shown we can compete with everyone in the world. The case now is not to do it for one or two games, but to do it consistently for 10-11 months.”

Jan Vertonghen has impressed again this season

That word consistency again. And perhaps the greatest asset of Pochettino’s Tottenham side over the last few seasons has been the ability to maintain a settled squad and a unified outlook, even amid the turmoil of a stadium move, as well as the inevitable overtures from bigger clubs. The vultures will be circling over Tottenham’s stars again this summer. One of them, almost certainly, will be Vertonghen’s Belgium and former Ajax team-mate Alderweireld, who is on the brink of leaving the club.

Would Vertonghen like Alderweireld to stay? “I’d like everyone to stay,” he says. “But it isn’t my decision. I don’t get involved in transfers. We have a great squad. Every year there are changes somewhere, but I think the core of this team will stay together.”

Instead, Vertonghen is keen to sing the praises of the man who has taken Alderweireld’s place in the centre of defence, another Ajax graduate in Davinson Sanchez. “He’s had a massive season,” Vertonghen says. “I know how hard it is to come here out of a different league. And especially a different kind of league, because the Dutch league is the total opposite of the Premier League.”

For Vertonghen, the success of Sanchez this season is a product of having a settled squad, where everyone knows each other’s role. “It’s difficult to gel players,” he says. “But if there are not too many changes, you pick one or two exceptional players that do fit in. Look at Davinson, or Serge Aurier. Both have had a great season. Lucas [Moura] came in January and has been good for us.

“Sometimes you click from the first minute. You have had the same education, the same understanding, the same way of playing, the same way of thinking. Other players you can be with for 10 years and you don’t get it. We’re lucky. I have a great relationship with Toby, Davinson, Danny [Rose], Ben [Davies], Juan Foyth. We’ve all gone through the same education, and it helps to develop us.”

The isolated disappointments of this season are still raw. But what you get from Vertonghen, and Pochettino as well, is that the shared vision remains undimmed. The belief has taken a knock, but held firm. There is pride that once again, Tottenham are in the top four ahead of wealthier rivals. “I think we can be very proud of ourselves,” Vertonghen says. “A trophy would show that even more. But now we just have to get in that top four before the end of the season.”

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