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Jan Vertonghen's playing days look numbered at Tottenham

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Gary Neville can recall the moment he knew it was all over for him at Manchester United following a poor performance against West Brom on New Year’s Day 2011.

“After 20 minutes, I knew that was my last game for United,” Neville later remembered. “The fans were singing my name. I was subbed after 60 minutes. Mick Phelan came over and said, ‘You’re done, aren’t ya?’ I went, ‘Mick, I’m done’.”

Watching Jan Vertonghen’s reaction to being replaced after 53 minutes of Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Southampton last night , you had to wonder if we were witnessing a similar sort of acceptance dawn on the Spurs defender.

Vertonghen left the pitch at the nearest point, behind the home goal, and his slow and thoughtful trudge around the touchline was suggestive of a man struggling with some inner torment.

Head bowed and brow furrowed, he barely seemed to register the applause from the home supporters, nor Jose Mourinho’s attempted acknowledgment before he took his place on the bench.

There, the 32-year-old could hardly have looked more pensive and crestfallen, sitting with his chin in his hands to watch the remainder of the FA Cup fourth-round replay.

Vertonghen has never been one for hiding his emotions — his body language has long been the subject of determined scrutiny by Spurs fans — and his clearly-pained reaction to a seemingly routine tactical substitution may indicate that he knows his playing days at this level are numbered. 

Tottenham squad 2019-20 | Injuries, contracts and squad numbers

Footage of Vertonghen celebrating either Lucas Moura’s equaliser or Heung-min Son’s winner from the penalty spot by twice slamming his substitutes’ jacket into the ground suggested his mood had soon turned from resignation to frustration. Mourinho confirmed that Vertonghen was not injured, but insisted his reaction was “normal” and compared the situation to his decision to replace Eric Dier in the first half of the win over Olympiacos in November.

“I decided to sacrifice Jan,” the Spurs manager said. “[He was] so sad, yes, and with a reason to be sad, but happy now because he won. I don’t need to [speak to him] because he’s an intelligent guy. 

“He’s very professional and it’s obvious that I did it not to punish because he was playing exactly the same as the others.”

Mourinho’s assessment of Vertonghen’s performance was generous. Starting on the left of a back-three, the Belgian was wildly off the pace and Southampton’s front two of Shane Long and Danny Ings turned him around more than once. 

The low point came when Ings sprinted clear of him almost casually in the first half, only to strike the bar — with Spurs then leading 1-0 through Jack Stephens’ own goal.

There may, of course, be other reasons for Vertonghen’s malaise and it would be premature to retire him aged 32 — four years younger than Neville’s reckoning — particularly as Mourinho suggested as recently as December 20 that he wants the centre-half to follow Toby Alderweireld in signing a contract extension.

Tottenham squad 2019-20 | Injuries, contracts and squad numbers

But it is increasingly clear that Vertonghen is not the same as he was. 

He has lost a yard in his legs, which for an emotional and intelligent player like himself or Neville, is deeply frustrating for the mind.

Former Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino seemed to know it, dropping Vertonghen at the start of the season, and in recent weeks Mourinho has seemed to sense it, opting for Davinson Sanchez at centre-half despite not trusting the Colombian. Last night, it looked like Vertonghen knew it, too.

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