Jan Vertonghen had a bad game for Belgium against Switzerland. One of the anchors in Tottenham Hotspur's EPL-best back line, he was shunted out to left back on Saturday, a position of need in the Belgium side and one that he has played all too frequently for the Red Deils, but a position that Vertonghen is on record as saying he doesn't really enjoy.
Vertonghen was given all sorts of problems on the left flank, particularly by Swiss attacker Xherdan Shaqiri and right back Michael Lang, who took him to the woodshed on a couple of occasions. None was worse than when Lang blew by Vertonghen like he wasn't there midway through the first half, setting up Blerim Dzemaili for Switzerland's only goal.
It was a pretty poor showing, but it's not all Vertonghen's fault. Of course he isn't really a left back, though he's played there a lot recently for Belgium going back to before the 2014 World Cup. But it does highlight one of the more glaring weaknesses of manager Marc Wilmot's side: that despite a host of solid defenders, Belgium has had a dearth of true fullbacks that have been ready for prime time.
This hole in the side more or less forced Wilmots to play both Vertonghen and his Tottenham central defense partner Toby Alderweireld as fullbacks, flanking a central defense partnership of Nicolas Lombaerts and either Thomas Vermaelen or Jason Denayer. And in fairness, Vertonghen has been decent enough playing wide, both for Belgium and for Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas, even if it's not his first choice of positions.
With Lombaerts out injured for Saturday's friendly, Wilmots shuffled his defense slightly against the Swiss, bringing Alderweireld into the center alongside Vermaelen and having Axel Witsel (of all people) deputize at right back. Which seems strange, and not just because Wilmots decided to play an attacking/central midfielder out of position at right back when he could've brought in a perfectly cromulent (and natural) right back like Dedryk Boyata or Thomas Meunier. Wilmot's decision to start Alderweireld beside a 30-year old Vermaelen may have been the default decision, but it wasn't necessarily the correct one.
Together, Vertonghen and Alderweireld formed the best central defense partnership in the Premier League, allowing a league-best 35 goals over a 38 match season for Tottenham. They are natural partners with a deep familiarity and what feels like an almost preternatural understanding of how to play together. And while Vermaelen is a very good defender, he is now on the wrong side of 30 and played just ten matches for Barcelona in an injury-blighted season. In fact, he's only recently returned from a calf injury that kept him out of Barça's last six matches.
It's also not like Belgium is totally without options at left back. Jordan Lukaku, Romelu's 21-year old little brother and a natural left back, came in as a substitute for Vermaelen midway through the second half and looked to be an improvement on Vertonghen in that position, even earning an assist for Belgium's match-winning goal. Jan then shifted back to the middle beside his old partner Alderweireld and looked much more comfortable in the center of defense.
Even if Lukaku the Younger isn't deemed ready to start in the EUROs, Wilmots could consider shunting Vermaelen out to the left instead. He's played there a few times while at Arsenal and was decent enough. I'm not sure Vermaelen would necessarily be any better than Lukaku (or even Vertonghen) in that position, but if you're determined to get all your best defenders on the pitch, playing Vermaelen out of position might be preferable to playing Vertonghen there.
Jan Vertonghen is an excellent central defender, but only a competent left back. Tottenham fans have seen this on numerous occasions in past years when injuries to other Spurs defenders forced him wide. He's capable of filling in there in a pinch, but he's not the player you want there by default. Meanwhile, his partnership with Alderweireld is such that breaking it up for the sake of expediency could be problematic for Belgium and at worst actively damaging.
Vertonghen's performances for Tottenham this season have earned him the right to play in central defense for Belgium in this summer's EUROs, and preferably beside Toby Alderweireld. It would be a shame to see him wasted on a team that could very well challenge for the European Championship trophy this summer.