It's Vertonghen versus Vermaelen in the battle of the ball-playing Belgian backs

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse Tottenham's new Belgian defender, and his suspiciously similar mate at Arsenal...

Comparing a new foreign signing to an established Premier League player is often a lazy way of explaining the new man’s qualities, and ends up painting him in an unfair light.

However, as a Belgian ball-playing left-footed centre-back signed from Ajax by a North London club, comparisons don’t come much more appropriate than that between new Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen and Spurs' summer signing Jan Vertonghen – not to mention the similar names.

Friends from both Ajax and the Belgian national team, Vermaelen bought Vertonghen dinner in his first week in London. Words of advice will have been passed on, despite their new rivalry, but it’s unlikely Tottenham’s new centre-back will enjoy such an impressive start to Premier League life – Vermaelen begun his Arsenal spell with four goals in eight games.

Both are products of the Ajax academy, and both even had loan spells at the same club (RKC Waalwijk) before nailing down a regular starting place in Amsterdam. Ajax coach Ronald de Boer is typically honest in his assessment of the two players: he thinks Vertonghen is the better player.

The first quality the two share, as you’d expect from players schooled at Ajax, is that they’re both excellent all-round footballers. They’re entirely comfortable with the ball at their feet, able to distribute it quickly, and also able to dribble forward towards goal.

Neither is uncomfortable as a holding midfielder or as a left-back – indeed, both have been moved out to the left for their country because of Belgium's surplus of centre-backs: they can also call on Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Lombaerts and Daniel van Buyten. Both also have a tendency to score from range, and are options at free-kicks.

Vertonghen is less ambitious and incisive with his passing, preferring to move the ball quickly and simply to his left-back, whereas Vermaelen looks to play the ball into midfield quickly. A snapshot of two games from last season, albeit against a very different calibre of opposition, shows the contrast.

But whereas Vermaelen’s standout quality is his strength and aggression, Vertonghen is a more composed, analytical player and is more sensible with passing. Look at the difference in his distribution in two Ajax games last season – when Ajax are comfortably winning, Vertonghen focuses upon keeping the ball with short sideways passes. When they’re at 0-0 and desperate for a goal, his passes are much more ambitious and always into the opposition half. There’s also a few long diagonals from left to right – in the same way Vermaelen often looks to hit the ball out to Theo Walcott for a quick attack, Vertonghen might do the same for Aaron Lennon.

Evidently, the Ajax system suited Vertonghen, just as it did Vermaelen. The Premier League presents a different challenge, though the features of an Andre Villas-Boas side – short passing out from the back, a high defensive line – should suit him well.

FFT's Half-Time Oranje, 25.06.12: Vertonghen ready for Premier League

But while Vermaelen’s qualities on the ball are undoubted – since he joined Arsenal, no defender has scored more Premier League goals – his defensive work can be sloppy. A tendency to get dragged towards play and leave space in behind has cost Arsenal a few goals in the last three years, and there remains a feeling that he’s a little too impetuous.

Vertonghen is a calmer player. He moves out of the defence less frequently and makes fewer interceptions than Vermaelen, happier to shut out danger closer to goal. A couple of inches’ height advantage is another notable feature, though Vermaelen does make up for this deficit by possessing an excellent leap.

Aside from dinner dates, the two won’t meet until 17th November, in the early Saturday kick-off at the Emirates. By then, Vertonghen should have established himself in the Tottenham side and familiarised himself with the Premier League. Having followed in Vermaelenn’s footsteps in many other ways, it’s not unrealistic that in a couple of years, Vertonghen could also be captaining his side in a North London derby.

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