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Tottenham Hotspur Season in Review 2018-19: Center Backs

Tottenham’s defense was outstanding in 2018-19, in no small part because of the excellent play from its starting center backs.

FC Barcelona v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur’s season has hinged often on last-ditch performances by our attackers — whether clock-beating goals that preserved our Champions League campaign or dramatic winners to extend our tie-less record — but Spurs’ defensive layers were unsung heroes of many games. We conceded the third-fewest goals in the Premier League, embodying the defensive record that helped us in what could have been a cataclysmic season. With Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane both out for significant portions of the season, and a host of other injury troubles weakening the team through the midfield and offense, our offensive performances were never going to be that certain. A large portion of our games were decided by single-goal margin and we counted on our defense to see out those results. When our defense failed, late in the season, we dropped points immediately, showing how important their solid performances had been earlier on. The center backs led our defensive organization while the full backs were rotated often and occasionally showed flashes of unpredictability (cough-cough, Kieran Trippier). Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen remained the bulwark pairing that they have been for the previous four seasons, while Davinson Sanchez was promising in his second season at the club and Juan Foyth hacked his way through a season that illuminated both his potential and a number of concerns for the club.

Below, as a fun way to visualize each center back’s season, I recorded the team’s record across all competitions, then sorted that record by the games that each center back was involved in. This isn’t any kind of statistical analysis, and shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions about players, but was helpful for me to think in broad terms about who was involved in which games.

Tottenham team performance sorted by games started by each center back

Statistic Season total Jan Vertonghen Toby Alderwiereld Davinson Sanchez Juan Foyth Alderweireld/Vertonghen together
Statistic Season total Jan Vertonghen Toby Alderwiereld Davinson Sanchez Juan Foyth Alderweireld/Vertonghen together
# of Games 56 33 47 34 14 25
Goals Scored 103 49 80 59 35 36
Goals Conceded 63 38 49 38 15 25
Goal Difference 40 11 31 21 20 11
Points (imagined for cup ties) 104 53 89 57 27 44
Mean goals scored 1.81 1.48 1.70 1.74 2.50 1.44
Mean goals conceded 1.11 1.15 1.04 1.12 1.07 1.00
Mean GD 0.70 0.33 0.66 0.62 1.43 0.44
Mean points 1.82 1.61 1.89 1.68 1.93 1.76

Toby Alderweireld

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

What is there to say? Toby is one of the best center backs in the league right now, as he has been for the past few seasons. He’ll probably be gone in the summer, but he earned his exit with a great season that suggested an easing of tensions between him and the club. He started all but eight games across all competitions, and his defending was superlative, marred only by occasional miscommunications that were due more to unfamiliar tactics than to individual error. Unfailing defending and a few moments of particular brilliance are what fans have come to expect from him, and again he delivered. Offensively, Toby was often the start of Spurs’ attacks, either playing out from the back or receiving a back-pass in the midfield, and he showed that there was more to his game than simply marking and tackling with some excellent long balls and impressive vision. It was good to have a strong central defensive partnership between him and Jan Vertonghen to slowly rotate the young guys through.

Rating: 5 Chirpys

Jan Vertonghen

Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Jan preceded Toby Alderweireld at the club and he might outlast him, too. Our own superhero showed no signs of slowing up in another outstanding season. A hamstring injury kept him out of commission for most of the fall, giving Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth opportunities to get minutes, but when he was healthy again, Jan played 21 of Spurs’ last 25 games, and did so with characteristic charm and quality. Probably the most exciting moment of his campaign was when he filled in at left back against Dortmund in the Champions League, ending the night with an assist, an absolutely cracking goal, and a performance that would give both Danny Rose and Ben Davies a run for their money. Vertonghen and Alderweireld are an integral part of Spurs’ best XI and among the greatest center-back pairings in Europe. If Alderweireld leaves this summer, Jan may relish the challenge of training a new partner, perhaps Davinson Sanchez.

Rating: 5 Chirpys

Davinson Sánchez

Tottenham Hotspur v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Davinson Sánchez is only 22 years old, and his immense potential has been clear since his arrival from Ajax in the summer before last season. This year, his second season at Spurs, Sánchez started 34 games, giving fans and Poch an opportunity to see how his game is developing. Certainly more defensively solid than Juan Foyth, Davi was definitely the third-choice center-back after the two Belgian stars, but sometimes played alongside them or rotated in for one or the other, indicating that the manager was comfortable relying on him to give one of the others a rest. On his day, Sánchez is electric to watch: brilliant at anticipating a pass, pacy enough to beat its intended target, and precise enough to make a dazzling tackle or a bold skill maneuver. On the other hand, he continues to show occasional inconsistency and moments of uncertainty. That’s fine, at least for now, given that he’s so young, but he needs to fix his consistency issues sooner rather than later. Hopefully we will see more of him in this coming season, and hopefully he will iron out the few wrinkles in his game to become the world-class center back that he can be.

Rating: 3.5 Chirpys

Juan Foyth

AFC Bournemouth v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Foyth started 14 games for Spurs this season and certainly made an impression on his opponents. Best to get the bad news out of the way first: he conceded two penalties in his Premier League debut, which seemed to shake him up, and had a poor disciplinary record throughout the season, before his incredibly stupid red card against Bournemouth to send Tottenham to nine men during a crucial game. But the kid turned 21 in the middle of the season, so it’s important not to be too harsh, and he had some very special moments in his first PL season as well. Foyth will get the benefit of the doubt for this season and perhaps be forgiven for some wobbles next season, but long-term, he will want to strengthen the deficient parts of his game. Most notably, Foyth seems to struggle with the physical demands of central defense in the Premier League. Perhaps that isn’t a surprise—ESPN gives his weight at 152 lbs, which would be extremely light for a central defender. He could benefit from bulking up, but effective positional play and another year’s experience will also help him in the coming season.

Rating: 3 Chirpys