Tottenham Hotspur head coach Mauricio Pochettino is set to face one of his more pleasant selection dilemmas this season.
Centre-back Jan Vertonghen is—barring any unforeseen issues—approaching his return from a knee injury sustained in late-January. Now back training (see below), his aimed-for comeback date of "around the international break," per a February interview with Tottenham's official website, should see him available for early April games against Liverpool and Manchester United.
The decision facing Pochettino is whether Vertonghen should immediately replace Kevin Wimmer, the stand-in who has done solid work helping maintain the north Londoners' Premier League title challenge. An impending situation that also lends itself to the question of just what is Spurs' best centre-back partnership.
The easy part of this equation is the presence of Toby Alderweireld.
Vertonghen's fellow Belgium international has led Tottenham's defence calmly through its late-winter personnel switch-up. An even more pronounced assertiveness defending their penalty area augmenting his already-impressive coolness under opposition fire.
"I always try to see the team view and that’s the way you have to play, football is all about the club and the team and you always try 100 per cent for the team," Alderweireld told his club's official website of his role. "
"If you do that, your performances will be good. I always try to be there for everyone and that’s the way I play football."
With the versatile Eric Dier primarily required for midfield duty, Alderweireld is the obvious choice on the right-hand side of central defence.
Since Vertonghen's injury, Wimmer has staked a decent claim why he should stay on as the left-sided counter-point. For the most part impressively so, given these have been his first Premier League experiences since signing from Cologne last summer (he had to make do with occasional cup run-outs prior to being introduced during the win over Crystal Palace).
Yet, as largely encouraging as the 23-year-old's first serious run in the team has been, a fit and available Vertonghen's experience still gives him the edge. Even if in general areas of evaluation there is not a lot to choose between them.
Both have shown compatibility with Alderweireld, understanding when they need to combine to constrict opponents and when taking assertive individual action is required.
Each has significant respective resume-boosting appearances in big-game wins over Manchester City and draws with Arsenal. Not to mention consummate surrounding work in less prestigious but equally valuable results.
It is when you examine the finer detail that you find there is a finesse and focus in Vertonghen's work that the more direct-minded Wimmer cannot claim. Qualities he has honed through years of mixed experiences in the Premier League and elsewhere.
Each is often the first-responder in central areas for the Tottenham defence. Wimmer's willingness to step out of the back line is welcome, but his timing in subsequent challenges is not quite as sharp—see Vertonghen's 1.7 tackles per game compared to Wimmer's 0.4 and conversely the Austrian's 1.4 fouls to the Belgian's 0.6, per WhoScored.com.
Given the different opposition they have faced, and how those varying types of matches have been informed by different stages of the season, you cannot read too much into statistics. Wimmer's numbers hold their own overall and, when interpreted among the team's results, represent a player who performs the basic centre-back functions well (his simple passing style and comfort in possession belying the first impression his physique could give of a more cumbersome defender).
Nonetheless, they also coalesce with the notion Spurs' defence has a more fine-tuned and organised feel with Vertonghen in it.
The 28-year-old might have been as powerless as Wimmer and Alderweireld were against the marauding Borussia Dortmund attack in the UEFA Europa League last week (the defence given little protection by a midfield and attack who kept handing the ball over).
But overall this season, he has shown a focus that has rarely dipped since a rough two-game period back in August. That level of concentration could have aided the toiling Alderweireld more than the spellbound Wimmer's ball-watching did for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marco Reus' second goal out in Germany.
Again, Wimmer has done so well for a young player acclimatising to the demands of a new professional and personal environment. He deserves credit for his part keeping Spurs second in the league.
"I always knew Kevin was a very good player and that’s what pushes me to improve as well," Vertonghen told Spurs' official website after last month's win over Manchester City. "There is competition for places all over the pitch and that’s what makes the squad so strong."
When Vertonghen returns, his greater ability marshalling Tottenham's rearguard alongside Alderweireld should see him reclaim his place. But as he is evidently aware, he will have to stay on his toes if he wants to avoid being more permanently displaced by Wimmer down the line.