How Jan Vertonghen’s shift to left-back saved AVB’s job

Cast your thoughts back to Sunday 23rd September. Liverpool were hosting Manchester United at Anfield in the first meeting of the two since the truth regarding Hillsborough was brought to light. Furthermore, Manchester City were preparing to host Arsenal, the visitors praised following their resolute defensive display. However, in London, Tottenham Hotspur were preparing to host QPR in their first London derby of the season.

It was a cold, wet day in north London that afternoon, but Spurs fans went into the encounter confident of a second successive win, having picked up all three points at Reading the previous week.

However, this was certainly going to be a tougher task than a trip to the Madejski Stadium seven days earlier, following the R’s heavy investment over the summer. It would certainly prove to be the case for Spurs, with head coach Andre Villas-Boas forced into a defensive change following the draw with Lazio in the build-up to the encounter.

With both Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton injured, the 35-year-old opted for Gareth Bale, one of Spurs’ predominant attacking threats, at left-back; a position he hasn’t played in since his resurgent return to first-team duties under Harry Redknapp.

Unsurprisingly, the North Londoners lacked the necessary cohesion and attacking verve that was clear for all to see during the 3-1 win over the Royals. As a result, QPR took full advantage, with former Spur Bobby Zamora breaking the deadlock before half-time.

Bale was regularly exposed as a result of Clint Dempsey being utilised on the wing, with the American often cutting in and clogging up the area occupied by Gylfi Sigurdsson. As Phil Dowd blew the whistle for the interval, a chorus of boos echoed around White Hart Lane.

The fans were clearly frustrated and maddened by the lacklustre performance of the hosts, and you can understand their disappointment; it was a dire half of football from Spurs to say the least. It prompted a chance in formation from Villas-Boas as the 35-year-old brought young Steven Caulker from the bench in replace of Sigurdsson.

The move saw Bale pushed back into his familiar role, Dempsey shifted into the middle behind Jermain Defoe and Jan Vertonghen, brought in over the summer from Ajax as a replacement for the retiring Ledley King, pushed out to left-back.

Thus far, it has been Villas-Boas’ greatest tactical move to date. The switch gave Spurs that much needed shape in the second half to push on and claim the three points, with the Belgian’s marauding runs reaping havoc on the QPR backline.

Since the switch to left-back that afternoon, Vertonghen has reprieved the role in every Spurs game to date, bar the 1-1 draw with Maribor last week. It has worked, to an extent, with the young defender netting the opener in the 3-2 win over Manchester United last months.

However, there are chinks in the armour of the 25-year-old. At left-back, Vertonghen is often out-paced by nipper wingers, as witnessed during the aforementioned win over United. Nani continuously found space and time to pick out his cross, as a result of the Belgian’s inconsistency in the position.

Seeing Vertonghen break down the left enhances his attacking capability, but it’s defending that suffers. His often gung-ho approach often sees the defender out of position when he is called-upon to track back, as witnessed during the recent defeat to Chelsea during Juan Mata’s equaliser for the Blues.

It’s clear for all to see that Vertonghen is nothing more than a stop gap while Assou-Ekotto and Naughton continue their respective recoveries from injury. The Belgium international is a long-term solution to King in the heart of the back-line, not at full-back.

However, while he is required to perform at left-back, he is a more than adequate stand in, his performance against QPR a testament to that. With an abject first-half against the R’s, and the spotlight already at its brightest on Villas-Boas, his display certainly alleviated the pressure on the 35-year-old, especially with Spurs fans already on his back following the poor home performances against West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City. 

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