Though the headline grabbers this season for Tottenham have been Dele Alli, Harry Kane, and Mousa Dembele, much of the team's success so far this season has been built on the team's defensive strength. Spurs currently have the best defensive record in the league, which is a remarkable turnaround from last season's often shambolic defending.
Most of the credit for that improvement has been attributed to the remarkable partnership at the heart of the Spurs defense where the Belgian duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have both been ever-present this season. But according to multiple reports, Vertonghen is now set to miss six to eight weeks due to an MCL injury.
What now for Spurs?
The first thing to note is that Tottenham's defensive success is about far more than just the two Belgian defenders. If anything, the biggest difference this season has been in the midfield area where Spurs have mastered Pochettino's defensive system after a mostly awful attempt at it last season. The performance of Eric Dier in midfield has been particularly significant in this improvement. So it's possible that the strength of Tottenham's system will be sufficient to mask some of what is lost in Vertonghen's absence.
Second, this may force Tottenham to buy a defender before January is done—and since teams will now that Spurs are desperate that defender likely won't come cheap. That said, the alternative is probably even worse: Spurs have four players in the squad with Premier League experience at center back: Alderweireld, Dier (needed in midfield), Fazio (LOL), and Wimmer (15 minutes of experience counts, right?). If Wimmer gets hurt, or worse still Dier or Alderweireld go down, then this season could unravel as the dominoes would begin to fall for Spurs. A Wimmer injury would likely force Dier into defense which then forces the injury-prone Dembele into Dier's holding role. An Alderweireld injury would do the same and would deprive Spurs of arguably the best center back in the Premier League.
Third, if Vertonghen makes it back for the North London Derby on March 5, then these are the matches he would miss:
- FA Cup 4th Round at Colchester (Jan. 30)
- at Norwich City (Feb. 2)
- vs Watford (Feb. 6)
- at Manchester City (Feb. 14)
- Europa League Round of 32 at Fiorentina (Feb. 18)
- Europa League Round of 32 vs Fiorentina (Feb. 25)
- vs Swansea City (Feb. 28)
- at West Ham (March 2)
If he is not able to return till the international break, he would also miss the following three Premier League games:
- vs Arsenal (March 5)
- at Aston Villa (March 12)
- vs Bournemouth (March 19)
Of the lot, five games in particular stand out: The first tricky match will be the home tie against Watford. Vertonghen's absence may make Pochettino a bit more cautious about trying experimental three man defenses as he did in the reverse fixture at Vicarage Road. That said, asking Kevin Wimmer to help manage of the Premier League's most dangerous partnerships in only his second league start may be too much. The second match is the following week when Spurs travel to the Etihad to face City. If Spurs are in the title race, then this game is a six pointer. Even if it isn't, the team can't afford a bad loss at City that could sap some of their confidence.
The next two games are the Europa League ties with Fiorentina. These are a big deal for two reasons: First, the Europa League is another possible way for the team to qualify for the Champions League. Second, in the coefficient battle between England and Italy this is in some ways the equivalent to another six pointer. So Spurs will want to do well in this tie.
Finally, Tottenham face a tricky trip to West Ham three days the home tie with Arsenal. Those back-to-back derbies could either give Spurs the confidence they need to maintain their form through the end of the season and maybe mount a late title push or they could become the equivalent to the 5-2 humbling in the last North London Derby of the 2011-12 campaign which was the beginning of the end of the Redknapp era.
The tl;dr version of all this is that Tottenham is set to face a tricky stretch of the season without one of their most important players this season. The title chase and perhaps even the top campaign for a top four place just got much trickier for Spurs. But, of course, it's Tottenham—we couldn't expect the soccer gods to make it too easy, could we?