Saturday 15 December 2018

Vertonghen admits Spurs need to heed lessons of Juve loss

Tottenham Hotspur's Jan Vertonghen appeals to referee Szymon Marciniak during the Champions League match. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Tottenham Hotspur's Jan Vertonghen appeals to referee Szymon Marciniak during the Champions League match. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

Nick AmeS

For Jan Vertonghen and his Tottenham team-mates the inquest began in the minutes after full-time at Wembley, continued over breakfast at Hotspur Way the following morning, and carried on into the dressing room before training. The ghosts of Juventus will not disappear easily; nobody could really expect them to, but times like this demand that balance quickly overrides emotion.

Paulo Dybala's dead-eyed finish and the Chiellini-Buffon rockface on which Spurs dashed their heads thereafter had provided object lessons; then again, Tottenham had convinced themselves of a few things too. "If you see how they approach the games, and how they live and play the game, you can definitely learn from it," Vertonghen says of that weather-beaten Juve core. "I don't think we are far away from that but they have the experience over us and the way they approached the game is impressive."

Yet the Belgium defender also believes Tottenham were "so much better" than their opponents over the two legs of their Champions League last-16 tie and that the sum was a vindication of their approach rather than a clarion call to go back to the drawing board. "We should have killed the game," he says, giving little entertainment to the idea that, from Juventus' perspective, the thought of going for further goals might have seemed naive.

"Maybe, but they haven't won a Champions League in a while either," he says. "Barcelona did it and so many others did in the way that we want to play. You can speak about it in both ways - they have won so many scudettos and have been in the Champions League. They are obviously a great team but not [in] the style that we want to play. And I believe that our style fits us better."

That is how Spurs carry themselves these days: with a belief that potential tripwires are little more than stones on the road. It has not always been that way and it was some insight into Mauricio Pochettino's approach when he explained in February that he had worked with Vertonghen on improving the "mental aspect" of his game, and specifically his body language.

Pochettino remembered watching a match at Anfield on television during Tim Sherwood's tenure and seeing the centre-back slouched in the tunnel; the instruction, as soon as they became colleagues, was that becoming a "warrior" was obligatory.

"I think [so], as far as I can get," Vertonghen says of the progress made on that front. "I still sometimes have to tell myself in my head [to straighten up]. But I've had so many comments on this since I was young, with Ajax - and here and the national team and everywhere I've been. Not just playing football but in life. I'm definitely not a rebel."

It is more an inability to mask disappointment than an attitude issue. "That's always the case, and I still can't hide it. But I'm not that disappointed any more because we're doing better. Maybe that is the way to do it - just make sure you don't lose again."

He knows Pochettino had a point but, away from that, broadly agrees with the notion that cod body language analysis can be an unfair sculptor of reputations. The example of Mesut Özil, languid to some and luscious to others, is raised but Vertonghen is keener to extrapolate. On this stage, whether trading blows with Juventus at Wembley or - as Spurs will today - lining up opposite Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium, can you really carry anyone?

"There are so many examples, but I believe on this level everyone is trying. You can't all be Buffons and Chiellinis," he says, alluding to the macho, punchy joy evinced by Juventus's totems when Buffon held a late cross.

"It's beautiful how they do it but I believe at this level everyone is giving their all to make that block or give the assist or score the goal. Obviously you can scream after you do it but I believe, yeah, some of us need to be pushed."

Hangdog expression or not, Pochettino thinks the world of Vertonghen. He has called him a "complete centre-back" and the timing of that anointment, almost six years into his spell at Tottenham, is apposite given the uncertainty over the future of the player's Belgium team-mate Toby Alderweireld.

Vertonghen believes this is "the best physical condition I have been in" and that Pochettino, who has had to do without his services for extended spells in the past due to injury, has turned him into a player who can perform for 95 minutes rather than half a game.

Now 30, he feels the time is right to "reward myself and the team". This certainly feels like an important juncture; Tottenham's biggest assets, on the pitch and in the technical area, are being all-but wished away to European rivals by various sections of the commentariat. Vertonghen's thoughts are stated clearly and deliberately.

"I hope everyone feels (that this is a key period for the club) the way I feel it," he says. "This team can reach a lot, and it's always nicer to have achieved this with a group of players who have been together for a lot of time and come through the ranks, or have lived in London a long time. To achieve this with this group of colleagues and friends - that's a better feeling than just going somewhere and winning a trophy.

"It will give us a lot if we win something with this group. I can't speak for other players but I believe that they believe we will get that here, that trophy, and they will stay here."

It applies to Pochettino as well - "That's what we all hope. He's part of the project. He might have started it" - and it is why those images of cavorting Serie A veterans must be used for good. Prospects for the remainder of the season appear bright. In a kind-looking FA Cup last eight, Spurs travel to a Swansea side battling relegation and their hopes of a third consecutive top four finish look positive: at the start of this weekend they were five points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea and today will hope to capitalise on the points dropped by Liverpool in yesterday's defeat at Old Trafford. Should requalification for the Champions League be achieved, perhaps there will come a chance to show Chiellini and company that there are other ways to pummel out a win in Europe. "We've got the right mentality and I know we have what it takes to get there," he says. "Hopefully we will get another chance to show that to the world."

Observer

Bournemouth v Tottenham

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