The images of Jan Vertoghen sitting on the Tottenham Hotspur sidelines during Wednesday’s FA Cup replay win over Southampton stick in the brain. Spurs fans have rarely seen the veteran defender look so distraught over a performance. That the long walk back to the bench and the anguished stare came on the heels of an undoubtedly disappointing performance made some — myself included — leap to a conclusion that Vertonghen’s days as a regular contributor to a Tottenham side competing for top honors may be numbered.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as the images of Vertonghen’s reaction prompted a response from his agent, Tom De Mull. In a piece published in HLN today, London-based Belgian journalist Kristoff Terreur spoke to De Mull, who countered that Vertonghen’s reaction wasn’t about his future, but simply frustration and sadness over a bad personal and team performance up to that point.
“He’s feeling better now. This nothing to do with his future. Jan was just disappointed at the time of his substitution, about his performance, about that of the team. He still wants to get good results with Spurs after a difficult start. Win a Europa League or Champions League ticket, or in this case the FA Cup.
“He is 32, but he is still so ambitious. He wants so much. The Champions League is, for example, a huge priority. That’s the beauty of him. He wants to play at the highest level for as long as possible in a top competition. He is still very hungry. “
There’s a great video clip circulating on Twitter of another Vertonghen reaction after Son Heung-Min scored the penalty to win the match for Spurs. This time he’s animated and excited, throwing his jacket to the ground in celebration of the winning goal. It does provide a contrast to the images of Jan with his face in his hands, ruminating on a poor performance.
Terreur goes on to explain how Vertonghen is a super-perfectionist in the team, a player who wears his heart on his sleeve. The “body language” issues from past seasons were also referenced, but not in a negative way — more that Jan finds it difficult to mask his emotions when he’s on the pitch, which makes it easy for observers to decipher what he’s thinking. He’s his own harshest critic, and finds it tough to let disappointment — especially of his own performances — slide off of him.
De Mull also confirmed this.
“It is difficult for Jan to hide that, but that’s just the way he is. He is still very happy with Tottenham and feels great in London. Jan has made a life there. It is out of the question that he will not let it go. He has a lot of respect for Tottenham, and on the other hand Tottenham is very respectful towards us. That makes sense after almost eight years. There is a connection.”
It’s nice to hear. Nobody wants to think about a post-Vertonghen Tottenham Hotspur, since after the departure of Danny Rose he is the club’s longest-tenured player in the first team. Even so, De Mull’s comments don’t really address the issue at the core of the Vertonghen’s recent performances — that he may be past his peak and is only now starting to realize it.
Nobody could possibly doubt Vertonghen’s love for and commitment to Tottenham Hotspur, which is what De Mull is addressing in his comments. That’s obvious. But it carefully glides over the scary possibility that at age 32 Jan has crested the wave and is heading to the portion of his career characterized by diminishing returns.
That remains a strong likelihood, and it could yet impact Vertonghen’s future. De Mull notes that Vertonghen’s contract expires at the end of this season and while there have been talks, the two sides aren’t yet close to an agreement to keep him at Spurs.
“We currently have no agreement, but I do not exclude anything. We list everything. There is a lot of interest for Jan, certainly as a free agent, but Tottenham also remains an interesting option for us. The door is still open.”
I’m open to the idea that Vertonghen’s heartbreaking substitution was, as Jose Mourinho said, tactical and that Jan’s reaction was a more localized disappointment rather than ennui. It’s certainly De Mull’s job as Vertonghen’s agent to put his client in the best possible light. But even if that’s the case, it’s hard to discount that his performances have been beneath what we’ve come to expect from him, even last season. The club’s foot-dragging on a new contract is certainly telling, as time is running out to keep him at the club, even if he doesn’t want to go.
And the day is coming when Jan will fall behind younger players like Davinson Sanchez and Japhet Tanganga in Mourinho’s defensive hierarchy. It may have already come. In that sense, Spurs fans’ reactions to Wednesday’s images, like mine, aren’t necessarily incorrect — they may just be slightly premature.