Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are club teammates on Tottenham Hotspur and international teammates with Belgium, so it makes sense that they play with a freedom that comes from a long familiarity with each other and understanding of how they play.
But every so often it’s also worth exploring exactly why they complement each other so well, and Spurs’ 3-1 win over Fulham at Wembley Stadium provides an pretty good example of how they both differ and complement each other in Tottenham’s back line.
Mauricio Pochettino did something unusual against the Cottagers, at least compared to how Spurs have been playing for the past few months — he played a 3-5-2 that deployed both Vertonghen and Alderweireld flanking Davinson Sanchez. In this formation, both Toby and Jan were given the freedom to move up the pitch a little higher than they would in a back four, occasionally pushing into the midfield as they carried the ball forward.
Both Jan and Toby passed the ball very well against Fulham, and their pass maps are interesting in their own unique ways. Here’s Vertonghen’s map. (All graphics are taken from the StatsZone app on iOS, which is free but requires an [inexpensive] paid team subscription for access to all matches.)
Vertonghen is known for being good with the ball at his feet, and that’s evident by his pass map here. Jan’s passing style tends to be shorter, neater, tidier. He’s progressive with his passing, but he’s not trying to be overly tricky, mostly using Ben Davies and Dele Alli as outlets. In fact, Vertonghen completed 22 successful passes to Dele and 17 to Ben Davies, which were among the highest of Spurs’ pass combinations for this match.
Note also that Jan only misplaced six passes the entire game, and with the exception of the one by the corner flag, all of them were attempts at progressive passing. That’s Jan in a nutshell.
Now compare that to Toby’s map.
Fewer passes, but also many more long attempts from deeper positions. Toby looks for the safe pass first — he had 24 passes to Kieran Trippier, who had acres of space to work with all match — but he’s not afraid to bypass the midfield entirely to ping balls from deep to onrushing players like Dele, Harry Kane, and Lucas Moura. Most of his misplaced passes came from deep balls to players making runs.
When Toby was out injured last season, one of the recurring themes both on the site and in the comments was how much Spurs missed Toby’s long passing from deep positions. Alderweireld didn’t create any chances from his passing against Fulham, but he did stretch Fulham’s defense quite a bit with a few of those long balls.
I’m hardly a tactical genius compared to some of my colleagues at Cartilage Free Captain, but you don’t have to be a stat-head to notice things like this. Pretty much anyone with a subscription to StatsZone can view and understand player roles based on things like pass maps, chance creation, and other easily accessible stats that are freely (or cheaply) available. If you can, take a look at some of the visuals for Spurs matches — it often helps you understand what you saw on the pitch just a little more.
BONUS: Davinson Sanchez
It’s worth taking a look at the OTHER other Tottenham center back in this match as well, because Davinson Sanchez’s role was pretty different from the other two. Davinson was deployed centrally with both Jan and Toby on either flank. This is a similar position to what he took when Spurs were playing a back three at the beginning of last season. In this role, Sanchez is tasked less with trying to progress the ball, and more with mopping up anything that gets past the other defenders, being an easy outlet for Hugo Lloris, and making the safe pass to either Vertonghen or Alderweireld.
That’s a lot of lateral passing, and that’s perfectly fine. Sanchez has a lot fewer passes than either Toby or Jan, but he was hooked midway through the second half for Mousa Dembele as Mauricio Pochettino made a formation change. He also wasn’t asked to play the ball out of the defense in the same way that the other two were — he was the safety valve.
Sanchez didn’t have the greatest of matches, but that had more to do with his defensive positioning than it does for anything he did while in possession of the ball. And we have plenty of evidence to prove that he can be extremely effective with the ball at his feet. That just wasn’t how he was asked to play against Fulham.