Jan Vertonghen's north London storyline already feels as though it has been 10 rounds with the Fates. The defender had the opportunity to sign for Arsenal in the summer of last year and he might have taken it were it not for Thomas Vermaelen, the club's captain, who he counts as one of his closest friends in the game. Vertonghen plumped for Tottenham Hotspur, despite being unaware as to the identity of the manager. André Villas-Boas would follow him to White Hart Lane, as would the midfielder Mousa Dembélé, who he has known for most of his life.
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, had floated the idea of playing Vertonghen in midfield, which did not appeal, while Tottenham proposed that he become their cornerstone in central defence. Vertonghen has started more Premier League matches at left-back. He even enjoyed a light-hearted squabble with Gareth Bale in the early season about who least wanted to play in the position. Bale, initially, was chosen to answer the selection problem. Whatever happened to him?
Vertonghen is consumed by a sense of destiny as he enters Sunday's pivotal derby against Arsenal at White Hart Lane. He stands on the brink of achievement at domestic level, just as he does with Belgium, who after a string of qualification failures have seen a gifted crop of players come together to fire optimism for the 2014 World Cup.
Tottenham have threatened in the past only to find ways of falling short. The derby at roughly the same stage of last season, albeit at Emirates Stadium, finished in a 5-2 defeat and was the prompt for a 10-point advantage in third place over Arsenal to be squandered. The consequences were well documented and devastating, yet Vertonghen is convinced that things will be different this time.
"I have the same feeling at Tottenham that I do with Belgium, that we are in a strong team and we're getting stronger, that we're on the verge of something," he says. "A few results have helped us. We won at Manchester United and, with Belgium, we beat Holland at home. Everybody can feel that Spurs are getting stronger, not only inside the club but also at other clubs. Even in the Belgium team, we get the respect. Teams are not happy when they have to face us."
Vertonghen believes that the sentiment applies to Arsenal, who seem to drain the gamut of emotions every week. The pressure is suffocating, more so, in Vertonghen's view, than that at Tottenham, who represent the challenger, the coming force, and it has manifested itself in the anxiety of the Arsenal support and Wenger's behaviour. His outburst on the eve of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, when he sensed conspiracy against his club, was noted with glee at White Hart Lane.
"It gives you a lift," Vertonghen says. "We look at ourselves but then we see the opponent is under pressure, in trouble, and you want to take advantage of that. I hope we can put them under a lot of pressure in the game. Because we are not the team who finished first or second for the last 10 years, we are not under the pressure Arsenal are, but we put ourselves under pressure because we deserve to be up there and have the qualities to play in the Champions League."
Vertonghen mentions the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's refusal to sell Luka Modric to Chelsea in the summer of 2011, in the face of a £40m offer, when he discusses where he sees the club and what persuaded him to join them from Ajax. Although Modric forced a £30m move to Real Madrid last August, Vertonghen felt that the defiance of a domestic rival had sent a "very big signal".
"A few clubs were interested in signing me," he says. "I don't really want to talk about Arsenal. I chose Tottenham because they gave me a very good feeling from the beginning. They invited me, they showed me how badly they wanted me. I had a feeling that they were building something."
Vertonghen was quoted in December as saying that "Arsenal wanted me to be a controller in the midfield, an Emmanuel Petit-type," but he was clear that he wanted to press for a starting place in central defence. "They had Vermaelen," Vertonghen says. "I knew it would be very difficult for me to play in central defence if the captain and one of their best players plays there. You mention that when we were talking with clubs and then they say: 'Yeah, but you can play somewhere else?' I wanted clubs to get me not just for the bench but for the position I wanted to play."
The £10m transfer to Tottenham became protracted when Ajax brazenly refused to pay Vertonghen the percentage of the fee that was stipulated in his contract. The 25-year-old was forced to accept a compromise. But the deal was in place before Tottenham appointed Villas-Boas to replace Harry Redknapp, even if it was announced after the managerial appointment.
"I didn't know that Villas-Boas was going to be the manager," Vertonghen admits. "I signed for the club. But I was very happy when he came. I had Frank de Boer for the last two seasons at Ajax and he played in a similar way. Villas‑Boas wants to play possession and get defenders involved in that possession."
Vertonghen's adaptation to the English game and its unforgiving schedule has been impressive, as has the uncomplaining manner in which he has coped with being switched between centre-half and left-back. It began at home to Queens Park Rangers on 23 September when, with Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton injured, Villas-Boas had to perm from a pair of reluctant left-backs. "Gareth and I were joking about it," Vertonghen says, but the match would become a reference point for him and the club. Bale started at left-back, QPR led 1-0 at half-time and Tottenham were booed off. Villas-Boas, though, moved Vertonghen from the middle into the position for the second-half, he liberated Bale and watched the team win 2-1. Vertonghen has almost always played in central defence in the Europa League but 12 of his 23 league starts have come at left-back.
There is an edge about Vertonghen, a competitive streak that rages inside of him. He has needed it on his professional journey and the strength of his character was never more evident than when he moved to Amsterdam at 16. He was sent to school in the Bijlmer, which he describes as the "ghetto neighbourhood" and was a wild contrast to his upbringing in the Belgian village of Tielrode.
"I can be quite fiery," he says. "I was worse when I was younger but even now, when there is a bad decision from … it doesn't matter who, I sometimes want to scream. I have never fought in my life but I can be very angry, especially on the pitch."
One story from his early career stands out. "I had a very difficult time when Henk ten Cate was my manager at Ajax [in 2006-07] and I was never in the squad," he says. "I took the decision to go on loan to RKC Waalwijk [for the second-half of the season], I played and, after that, I became a starting player at Ajax. I scored against Ajax in the fourth last game of that season, in a 2-2 draw, and Ten Cate was probably angry because Ajax missed the title on goal difference. That's who I am. If I play, even at left-back, I do my best. And, of course, I had a bit of tension. I wanted to show Ajax I was a good player."
Vertonghen speaks warmly of Liverpool's Luis Suárez, a team-mate at Ajax and kindred spirit, in regards to his mentality and liking of "a laugh and a joke", while he is reverential about Jaap Stam, who finished his career at the Amsterdam club. "He showed us what a big superstar is about both on and off the pitch."
Vertonghen is settled in the smart north London area of Belsize Park, although it is indicative that he and his girlfriend, Sophie, who he met at school in the Bijlmer, have chosen the Camden Town side of it. Like them, Camden is individualistic. Sophie is from the Bijlmer and she works there in theatre workshops with children; she splits her time now between London and Amsterdam. Vertonghen, too, has relished providing inspiration to young people via his involvement with the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation.
Over in Hampstead, Vertonghen sees his compatriots Vermaelen and Dembélé and little sign of a north London divide. "They're all there," he says "Vermaelen, [Lukas] Podolski, [Per] Mertesacker … [Emmanuel] Adebayor, [William] Gallas, Mousa. I've known Thomas since I played in Belgium; for 10 years now. He went to the school in the Bijlmer and I was with him at Ajax. But I have the same with Mousa. I've known him for 13 years. It's funny. A lot of players live there [in Hampstead] so sometimes you see them. But we live in peace."
The gloves come off on Sunday at White Hart Lane.
Jan Vertonghen was speaking at a half-term football programme at White Hart Lane Community Sports Centre. The Tottenham Hotspur Foundation creates life changing opportunities for people in the club's community.