It could have ended so differently for Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen – they could have lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy in Madrid last summer, having guided Spurs to an unlikely final under Mauricio Pochettino. Instead, the Belgian duo will see out their Spurs partnership in a side who at present are the ninth-best in England, according to the Premier League table.
They will be remembered more fondly than they are viewed contemporaneously, as is often the custom. Ledley King and Michael Dawson run the Belgians a close second as the most revered Spurs centre-back pairing in the modern era. There is even an argument that given the protection the current incumbents have had in front of them – Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama in their prime to name a few – that Dawson and King’s performances were arguably more impressive.
Nevertheless, 33-year-old Vertonghen and 31-year-old Alderweireld will have wanted to go out on a high, in particular the former. Vertonghen’s time in north London looks set to come to an end at the end of the month when his contract expires, while speculation around Alderweireld’s future and the summer transfer window tend to go hand-in-hand.
Despite the occasional instance of ‘doing a Spurs’, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have largely debunked the urban legend of Tottenham being rather shaky at the back. In the pairing’s first season as a duo, Spurs had the league’s joint-best defensive record, conceding 35 goals – one fewer than champions Leicester City and runners-up Arsenal.
The following campaign, the pair boasted the league’s best defensive record outright, conceding 26 times in 38 outings. That year, Vertonghen played 33 times; Alderweireld appeared on 30 occasions.
Over the past five seasons, opposition managers’ half-time team talks have consisted of sage tactical advice, focused on breaching Spurs’ mean-spirited rearguard, rather than a cursory muttering of, “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” largely due to the pair.
On a strange, spectator-less July evening, Bournemouth were better than in recent contests, but still posed little threat and as with every Premier League season, look to be the side whimpering and faltering to relegation. In truth, they bettered a drab Spurs, lacking in intensity and a cutting edge. If not for a VAR call at the eleventh hour, Eddie Howe’s men would have taken all three points.
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Vertonghen and Alderweireld made a combined 16 clearances against Bournemouth – both men working in unison as they have done telepathically over the past few years. In particular, their level-headedness has been a key component of their respective games. While Hugo Lloris behind the Belgians has been criticised for a catalogue of individual errors, Vertonghen and Alderweireld are rarely at fault in the same glaring manner.
However, the pairing will need to be thankful to Lloris for keeping the game scoreless, denying Bournemouth a 94th minute winner. Much like the pair’s time at Spurs, their performance, fitness and concentration levels against the Cherries waned as the game entered its twilight. Twelve added minutes perhaps symbolised the duo overstaying their natural tenure as Spurs’ centre-back duo.
Life rarely has moments where true closure can be enjoyed by all parties; not all centre-backs can depart in the same way John Terry did at Stamford Bridge.
If it is to be Vertonghen and Alderweireld’s final hurrah, they will have gone out quietly in a game which had to wait until the 45th minute for its first shot on target, against a side devoid lacking attacking verve and cohesion.
If nothing else, the pair have gone out with a clean sheet to their names, just.