Tottenham don’t often sign centre-backs on permanent transfers, but they have just completed a deal for Micky van de Ven. Here, we take a look at what he’ll be bringing to north London
Since the summer transfer window of 2017, Tottenham had until this month signed just two centre-backs on permanent deals. In the past week, the north-London side have doubled that tally, completing deals for Blackburn youngster Ashley Phillips and the Wolfsburg and Netherlands defender Micky van de Ven.
While the 18-year-old Phillips is unlikely to be involved in first-team action immediately, Van de Ven has been signed to strengthen the starting XI straight away. Spurs have reportedly adopted a new data-driven approach to recruitment this summer, presumably meaning there are good numbers behind their new man’s game. So, let’s take a look at what he could bring to Ange Postecoglou’s team.
Tottenham’s defensive woes from last season are well documented. They became just the second team ever to score and concede more than 60 goals in a single Premier League season; the last team to do so was, you guessed it, Tottenham, back in 2007-08.
This time around they ended the season having conceded 63 times, the sixth-most in the entire league. This was also the most they had conceded in a season since the first edition of the Premier League in 1992-93, when they shipped 66 goals in what was a 42-game campaign under the guidance of joint managers Doug Livermore and Ray Clemence.
60 – Tottenham in 2022-23 is just the second time in a 38-game Premier League season that a side has both scored and conceded 60+ goals, with the other occasion also being Spurs in 2007-08. End-to-end. #TOTBRE— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 20, 2023
The decline in Tottenham’s defensive stability is clearly correlated to a lack of investment, with their goals conceded per season showing a worrying trend. Their only improvement of any kind of note was in 2021-22, when they conceded five fewer than the previous season, and that followed the big-money signing of Cristian Romero from Atalanta. 2022-23 was the worst by quite a distance.
Tottenham aren’t the only club who have paid attention to the 22-year-old this summer, and it’s easy to see why. Liverpool were also rumoured to be interested in acquiring Van de Ven, with some media in Germany making comparisons to their Dutch captain, Virgil van Dijk.
One of the most impressive attributes to Van de Ven’s game is his electric pace. He registered the highest speed of any centre-back in the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign, hitting a blistering 35.97kmh, or 22.3mph. One member of staff who worked with Van de Ven at Volendam recalled the youngster once running a 60m sprint in seven seconds flat after having completed a full training session.
Arguably Van de Ven’s most impressive public show of speed came in the 95th minute of January’s 2-1 DFB Pokal defeat away to Union Berlin, though. Chasing a late equaliser, Wolfsburg had sent everyone, including goalkeeper Pavao Pervan, forward for a last-minute corner. Union cleared the danger and broke forward in search of a third goal to wrap up their victory. Josip Juranovic’s ball set Jérôme Roussillon in on an empty net as Pervan seemingly gave up on his pursuit. Van de Ven, who had played all 94 minutes up to this point, galloped from one six-yard box to the other in just 14 seconds to make a remarkable block on the line.
The Netherlands Under-21 international’s speed will certainly be attractive to a Spurs side that is looking to transition away from playing a lower block under José Mourinho and Antonio Conte to a more attractive brand of football and a high line that Postecoglou insists upon. Tottenham’s current centre-back options certainly have limitations in this department, with Eric Dier particularly lacking in pace and Davinson Sánchez the only centre-half who could play alongside Romero and offer the pace required. His future at the club is in doubt though after he started just eight Premier League games last season.
Van de Ven is also competent in possession. Wolfsburg coach Niko Kovač described him as a “really good footballer” who is doing “extraordinary” things, and the data suggests he is good at bringing the ball out of defence. With 7.0 progressive carries per 90 in the Bundesliga last season, Van de Ven ranks well for the frequency with which he takes the ball at least five metres upfield. However, he stands out most for how far he carries the ball, with his carries averaging 11.8m in distance – the highest of any central defender to play at least 100 minutes in the Bundesliga last season.
His ability on the ball is likely a craft that the Dutchman perfected playing at left-back. He is primarily a centre-back, but he featured as a left-back four times in the Bundesliga last term. It’s not uncommon for left-sided centre-backs to move out to the full-back position when required – former Tottenham man Jan Vertonghen proved how useful he could be with a few impressive performances at left-back, most notably against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in Spurs’ run to the 2019 UEFA Champions League final.
With Postecoglou often asking his full-backs to invert into central midfield, he may like having the option of playing Van de Ven at left-back, meaning the right-back can move into midfield to leave three traditional centre-backs in defence, much like Pep Guardiola does with his Manchester City side.
After all, Van de Ven isn’t an entirely different profile of player from fellow left-footed centre-back Joško Gvardiol, who has of course just joined City.
Van de Ven is also supremely confident and dominant up and down the left side of the pitch and, as his touch map below shows, he often gets into advanced positions. Any left centre-back in this Postecoglou side will be expected to move out wide and often overlap when the left-back makes moves infield, and Van de Ven is more than capable of doing so.
His Cruyffian footballing background in the Netherlands means he has the basics to his in-possession game already, and he should be able to adapt to any slightly different requirements for Tottenham under Postecoglou.
Van de Ven is proficient in his passing without particularly excelling. He made 53.2 passes per 90 last season at a success rate of 88.3%, but made just 2.6 progressive passes per 90. That saw him rank way down in 26th of Bundesliga centre-backs to play at least 1,000 minutes last season.
It is fair to say that Van de Ven knows his limitations, though. He doesn’t look to play sweeping 50-yard passes to transform a move, instead passing much more conservatively, with the majority of his passes (57%) between 15 and 30 yards in length. It’s a sign of his self-awareness that he doesn’t try too much with his passes, but also an area of his game that could do with some improvement. Wolfsburg averaged just 50% possession last season, so it is possible that Van de Ven could do more in a more possession-heavy team under Postecoglou.
When it comes to his defending, he can be a little rash, which probably isn’t what Spurs fans want to hear when this is the likely partner for one of the Premier League’s most ill-disciplined centre-backs in Romero. Van de Ven’s size, strength and pace mean he can often make up for being caught out of position, but defending is an art to be learned and he has some learning left to do.
He was protected at Wolfsburg last season by a more traditional centre-back partner in Maxence Lacroix, but he won’t have that luxury at Spurs, where he and Romero might provide a few too many fireworks.
He is, however, adept at delaying opposition attacks when he opts against diving in. He is astute in selecting the angle at which he approaches his opponent, which helps him guide the ball towards the touchline and away from danger, but also buys him some time to make the most sensible decision rather than acting on instinct. When he does then engage his opponent in a physical duel, he has the strength to manoeuvre most attackers off the ball.
Another area of his game where he could improve is in the air. Despite being 6-foot-4 tall, he won only 36 of the 69 aerial duels he contested last season (52.2%), at an average of just over one per game. This also isn’t an area of the game in which Romero excels – Tottenham fans will remember all too well Ben Mee rising high above Romero to score Burnley’s winner at Turf Moor in February 2022 – and it may be that this is another area of the game that Postecoglou needs to work on with his new signing.
At his age, though, you’d expect there to be areas for improvement; that is why Van de Ven is costing a reported £43m and not £86m. He has raw defensive ability that should provide the foundations for a good career at the top end of the Premier League, plus the confidence in possession to succeed under Postecoglou.
Given how bold the Australian asks his defenders to be on the ball, that side of the game should be far more significant than any defensive deficiencies. Spurs fans will hope that Van de Ven’s arrival will mean the club doesn’t need to make too many more signings at centre-back in the coming years.