Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
“I was fifteen and saw someone robbed of his jacket.” As first impressions of a city go, this certainly wasn’t the best.
Since the day a 15-year-old Jan Vertonghen first visited Amsterdam, he’s not witnessed a single instance of petty crime in the city that has since become his home.
Now, nine years later, the 24-year-old defender looks set to leave one capital city for another, with a move to Tottenham Hotspur in the pipeline.
His debut saw Ajax eliminated in the Champions League qualifiers. It was the first, and certainly not the last set back of his Ajax career.
Another came when playing for Jong Ajax against in the KNVB Beker, against Cambuur Leeuwarden in 2006. He attempted to knock the ball back to the opposition keeper after one of his team-mates had received treatment for an injury. But rather than landing comfortably at the custodian’s feet, it flew over his head and into the net. Vertonghen’s facial expression spoke a thousand words.
He would go on to make a habit of scoring spectacularly, though not always in such an unfortunate fashion. He is a free-kick specialist, as well as a threat from corners. His last strike of 2011/12, suitably a free-kick, took his tally to eight league goals – the most by an Ajax defender since Frank De Boer in 1994/95.
His ascent to prominence is a testament to his character. He’s had to fight, scratch and claw. His versatility – comfortable in midfield and defence – was a curse rather than a blessing. He was in danger of being pigeonholed as a utility player.
He craved playing central defence. The opportunity presented itself when Thomas Vermaelen left for Arsenal. He grabbed it, but was still prone to lapses. Frank de Boer’s arrival energised and bettered him.
The former Dutch international pushed him in every training session; every mistake made during a game would see De Boer squirm on the bench. De Boer saw greatness in him and strived to unleash it. Vertonghen, who combines football with studying a degree in sports marketing, became his protégé.
"I've learned a lot from him,” Vertonghen enthused. “Analysing situations during a game and building attacks. Because he was the same type of player as me, I understand what he wants. He’s been good for me. He stands for the old Ajax style of daring football."
Nicknamed ‘SuperJan’, he marauds from defence, starting, continuing and occasionally finishing the attack. To some, he is Ajax's best attacker, the quintessential ball-playing centre-half in the mould reminiscent of predecessors Velibor Vasović, Ruud Krol and Ronald Koeman.
His goal against Den Haag was the perfect illustration: he intercepted the ball in his own half, played a one-two with Ismaïl Aissati, ran into the opposition penalty box, dragged the ball onto his right foot and curled it into the bottom corner.
De Boer’s reinvention of Ajax in the second half of last season benefited Vertonghen. It was the ideal stage for the eventual Dutch Footballer of the Year to express his natural game.
There’s an argument the system has made him look a better defender than he actually is. Yes, controlling matches in the manner Ajax do makes his job easier, allowing him to vacate central defence and act as a deep-lying creator, but the very fact he is able to step out of defence in such a way just underlines his versatility and technical ability.
A fair criticism would be that he sometimes looks vulnerable when on the back foot, though this is rarely punished in the Eredivisie due to Ajax’s dominance during most matches. In a different environment, it could be a bigger issue.
Vertonghen spent his youth at VK Tielrode and Germinal Beerschot, both in his native Belgium. He joined Ajax’s academy in 2003 and three seasons later made his senior debut against F.C. Copenhagen.
“I’m probably more of an Amsterdammer than a Belgian,” he explains. “I grew up in this city and built up my social life here. Everything happens in Amsterdam. I live here, my girlfriend is from here, my friends, Ajax, everything. I don’t know anything else anymore.”
He doesn’t regard himself as a celebrity, you often find him playing pub quizzes, walking down the streets of Amsterdam immersing with the public. In turn they have taken to him, Vertonghen gives the impression he’s a fan who has the privilege of playing for Ajax.
The freedom he gets in Amsterdam may not be afforded him in England. Last month, he was the centre of attention when Belgium visited Wembley for England’s final Euro 2012 warm-up match. The English media had suggested his move to White Hart Lane was all but complete, and were desperate for quotes about the deal straight from the horse’s mouth.
“It was my first brush with the English press,” he explained, having taken to Twitter to play down reports he had suggested the deal was complete. It was far from done.
Some have questioned his decision to join Spurs, but Vertonghen has long been an avid follower of the Premier League - playing at Old Trafford in last season’s Europa League only enhanced his passion - and Tottenham, unlike many of their rivals, will guarantee him first-team football in his favoured role.
Last season saw Vertonghen come of age. De Boer described it as “beautiful to watch.” His exemplary leadership coupled with no-nonsense attitude helped Ajax successfully defend their title. He leaves as a champion, but isn’t closing the door on a future return.
“You have to go if you feel you’re ready”, he told Ajax’s official website. “If that’s at 21 years old or 25, it doesn’t matter. Age isn’t an issue. As a football player, I feel ready for that now.”
ZonalMarking.net 's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse Spurs'
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