Jan Vertonghen in action for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

Jan Vertonghen: return of the attacking defence man

Mauricio Pochettino’s use of a back three gives Jan Vertonghen the freedom to return to being an attacking defence man.

Remarkably, Jan Vertonghen has just one Premier League goal since his debut season in England. Quite a surprise given that he netted five times during his first campaign in Tottenham lilywhite.

Andre Villas-Boas had used the Belgian as an offensive weapon to break defensive lines in that season, something Mauricio Pochettino has now reignited.

Jan Vertonghen attacking from defence under AVB

Andre Villas-Boas signed Jan Vertonghen for three reasons.

Firstly, Vertonghen was a versatile and solid defender that could play both centre and left back positions. Secondly, he was comfortable on the ball with the ability to accurately pass, often over distance. Thirdly, for his ability to step out of defence and pop up in surprise positions in attack, almost like an old school Libero used to do.

Villas-Boas utilised all three of these facets, but particularly the final one. Jan Vertonghen would frequently shock opponents with his forward movement to break their first or even second defensive lines.

Rewind back to his first goal in our colours after just two minutes of Man Utd 2 Spurs 3 at Old Trafford. Vertonghen played out from the back, exchanged passes with Gareth Bale, glided forward through several challenges and finished via a deflection.

Roll on a few weeks and the pair was at it again. Swansea were the opponents this time, as once more Vertonghen surprised the defence by surging past Bale to take the through ball and finish.

Jan Vertonghen bursts forward to score during Swansea 1-2 Spurs at the Liberty Stadium in the Premier League.

Jan Vertonghen bursts forward to score vs Swansea.

The Swans were caught off guard and unaware that a central defender would try such a thing. Vertonghen would catch them out again as he created our second goal. Striding forward, he stole in-behind their midfield line to pick out Bale’s run straight through the centre.

Jan Vertonghen beyond the Swansea midfield picks out Bale during Swansea 1-2 Spurs in the Premier League at the Liberty Stadium.

Jan Vertonghen beyond the Swansea midfield picks out Bale.

Jan would add two more goals from free kicks in that season, but combined with Bale once more in our devastating 3-2 loss at Anfield. The Welshman’s cross finding Vertonghen’s forehead to nod home as he popped up in the box once more.

Surprisingly, Jan Vertonghen only has one Premier League goal since that sensational season. Both Tim Sherwood and Mauricio Pochettino curbed his forward bursts. That is until now.

Since switching to a back three, Pochettino has restored Vertonghen’s licence to attack. Whilst it hasn’t so far produced the goals of his first season, it has threatened to. Defences have been surprised by his movement and Vertonghen is once more breaking their lines. A classic example was in our 3-2 victory over Everton with a run that rekindled memories of Old Trafford.

Jan Vertonghen breaking lines

The forward bursts of Jan Vertonghen are made possible due to the back three. Two centre backs in reserve, plus the cover from defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama, give him the green light to go if he sees an open lane.

Three centre backs also permit Vertonghen to move forward to break a defensive line with his movement and then with a pass. This can see Vertonghen pop up in central midfield areas, where the defence don’t expect him to be, much like an old school Libero.

Jan Vertonghen splits Stoke open from a central midfield position during Spurs 4-0 Stoke in the Premier League at White Hart Lane.

Jan Vertonghen splits Stoke from a central midfield position.

Since returning from injury, Vertonghen moving in to these areas of the pitch has had a huge affect on our chance creation. Above he is free to carve open the Stoke defence. Against Southampton, moving up in to similar positions created both our goals in our 2-1 victory.

Vertonghen started the move for our first goal by finding Mousa Dembele to release Christian Eriksen to score.

Saints stretched allows Jan Vertonghen to move forward during Spurs 2-1 Southampton in the Premier League at White Hart Lane.

Saints stretched allows Jan Vertonghen to move forward.

Vertonghen’s pass from an unmarked central midfield position then saw us win a penalty.

Jan Vertonghen looks for Son's run off the Centre Back during Spurs 2-1 Southampton in the Premier League at White Hart Lane.

Jan Vertonghen looks for Son’s run off the Centre Back.

The combination then almost added a third. From an almost identical position, Vertonghen played Dele Alli in, but he couldn’t finish.

Jan Vertonghen moves forward and finds Dele between the CBs during Spurs 2-1 Southampton in the Premier League at White Hart Lane.

Jan Vertonghen moves forward and finds Dele between the CBs.

Jan Vertonghen attacking passing

The freedom to stride out of defence takes advantage of Jan Vertonghen’s underrated passing. The long raking diagonals of Toby Alderweireld take all the plaudits, which means that Vertonghen’s distribution often goes under the radar. He too is an Ajax product, a team that uses this ball to hit their wide forwards quickly and he is equally comfortable in attempting it.

Jan Vertonghen passes played Ajax vs Lyon in the Champions League.

Jan Vertonghen passes played Ajax vs Lyon, 2011.

Stepping out from defence, Vertonghen’s shorter passing game is used to pierce opposition defensive lines. This creates chances for other players that are on the move through the opposition.

However, similarly to Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier, Vertonghen can also switch the side of the attack. This sees us quickly move the ball in to space on the opposite side and create chances, such as from this Vertonghen pass against Everton.

The ability to shift the ball accurately in one pass from side-to-side is key to Mauricio Pochettino’s attack. Three centre backs that can all play this pass gets our attack moving and pulls the opposition around.

Jan Vertonghen return of the attacking defence man

Jan Vertonghen had quite the first season in a Spurs shirt. Five Premier League goals and a further one in Europe saw his ability to move out from defence maximised.

Since season one, his freedom to get forward had been curbed for a more traditional centre back role.

Mauricio Pochettino’s move to a back three once again lets him off the leash. A return to not only the scoring charts, but also assists, is imminent.

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4 Responses to Jan Vertonghen: return of the attacking defence man

  1. YouShubes 28th March 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    Having not seen much of Poch in Spain or at the Saints but this feels for me him changing/adapting his “philosophy” to get the best out of his players. The underlying Bielsa principles still exist but he tweaked them. I often forget how young Poch is in terms of being a coach and he is still learning

    We saw against Everton Dier has decent crosses in him as well. Having 3 ball playing CBs means it is harder for a single attacker to press as effectively making it easier to play out from the back.

    Question Mark is this what Pep is trying to do but he simply does not have the players for it (yet) Stones clearly is no Toby. Certainly under Conte Luiz is better in a three than as part of a CB pair when under either Carlo or Jose….

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 28th March 2017 at 4:17 pm #

      All coaches have to evolve and I think this is Poch getting the best out of the players at his disposal. It also solves the riddle of how to get Dier and Wanyama in to the same team as they are too good to have one sat on the bench.

      I think Pep is very different as his team’s passing is much shorter and looks to hit the wide forwards, Sterling and Sane, through two number tens – de Bruyne and Silva. Luiz in a back three looks much less of a liabilty than he had been for Chelsea, PSG and Brazil in a pair – saftey in numbers!

  2. Daudi 28th March 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    Big up Mark, keeping us posted during the break.

    Jan is massive for us, as is Toby. One without the other is always worrying, but they have come through holding the defence when one of them is out. Honorable mention to Dier as he is coming through well… Rid of the ocassinal mistake and that defence looks formidable going forward

    I too miss Jan marauding forward and scoring a few, and so too the ‘super Jan’ celebration. Hope to see one before season end. Think you forgot to mention he has a really decent right foot for a leftie, can’t really remember the game, but really recently one from his right boot hit the crossbar, it had goal written all over it.

    I hope the three at the back is a mainstay for the foreseeable future. Flexible too when the fullbacks fall back.. wordplay..

    Cheers Mark

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 28th March 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      Ah yes, he hit the bar with a right foot effort against Stoke, would’ve been an exceptional goal too!