Pretty much since the turn of the century, when you mention the word ‘defence’ or ‘defender’ to an Arsenal fan, it’ll probably be followed by a sharp intake of breath and an anxious expression.
For so long the club have become synonymous with a bad defensive record and some shocking mix-ups at the back. Not unjustifiably, of course. Who can forget Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny calamitously coming together to gift Obafemi Martins and Birmingham City the Carling Cup in 2011? Or Kieran Gibbs slipping at the worst possible moment in a Champions League semi-final? There have been plenty of misfits in the Arsenal backline in recent years; Mikael Silvestre, Sebastien Squillaci, Pascal Cygan and Igors Stepanovs are all names Gunners fans would rather forget. To put it bluntly, Arsenal have got a pretty serious reputation for being fairly dreadful defensively.
As with the majority of media-driven narratives, however, it is not entirely true, or at least grossly exaggerated. Arsène Wenger’s side are pretty solid these days. Only Manchester City conceded fewer goals in the Premier League last season, and although the ball has nestled in the Gunners’ net nine times this campaign, there is a relative efficiency and solidarity about the defence.
The bedrock is, surely, the growing understanding and familiarity between members of the back five. Even if he was dropped for a small period at the end of last season, Szczesny is the undisputed number one and has been for a couple of years now. Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs are fine full-backs that have been at the club a long time and, whisper it quietly, Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have formed one of the best centre-half partnerships in the Premier League.
Where does this then leave Thomas Vermaelen? Despite being appointed club captain following the departure of Robin van Persie last summer, the Belgian simply cannot find his way back into the team and, right now, to be frankly honest, he’s not being massively missed.
Vermaelen is a bit of an enigma. When he first arrived he immediately warmed himself to the Gunners faithful, with his crunching tackles and no-nonsense style and, perhaps more than anything, his tendency to pop up with goals – he scored an impressive eight times in his debut season. He had established himself as a fan’s favourite and there was widespread dismay when he was ruled out of the vast majority of the 2010/11 season with an Achilles injury.
Koscielny came in and impressed, as did Johan Djourou (although his good form was quite short-lived in comparison) and then Mertesacker was bought the following summer. The 2011/12 campaign was undoubtedly one of the poorest under Wenger; with the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn and 8-2 pounding received at Old Trafford being the particular low points as the manager toiled with accommodating five centre-halves.
Djourou and Squillaci were shipped out the following summer and Koscielny, Mertesacker and Vermaelen were set to battle it out between them for two starting berths. The latter two started the campaign well, keeping three consecutive clean sheets against Sunderland, Stoke and Liverpool, but the Belgian’s form soon dipped and he was replaced again by Koscielny who this time kept his place.
When he was called upon, Vermaelen simply didn’t look the same player. Having said that, some argued that his goal-scoring streak upon arrival masked some of his defensive deficiencies, although I personally think this is a cheap, easy party line to tow. Last season we saw a player lacking confidence, one seemingly devoid of all positional sense and tactical nous and nobody was really upset when he was replaced in the side. But as far as I’m concerned, Vermaelen arrived as a very good defender and continues to be just that – you don’t lose all your ability overnight; form is temporary and all that.
Kolo Touré never read the game as well as Mertesacker, for example, and was also not infrequently caught out of position, but the Ivorian had the pace and tenacity to recover and clear any impending danger. I still think Vermaelen is similar in that regard, and that, despite being under the six foot threshold that apparently defines whether or not you are a ‘commanding centre-half,’ he has a great leap and is more than capable of being dominant in the air. He also possesses fine technical ability, and, particularly at the start of his Arsenal career, was renowned for starting attacks from the back with his diagonal passes to the flanks.
If he needs to be called upon, I’m still confident that Vermaelen can and will perform. For once, Arsenal have some genuine quality depth at the back and will almost certainly utilise that as they look to compete on four fronts. Wenger said last season: “I have three quality centre backs and I rotate. In recent times I played only Koscielny and Mertesacker because we won the games and there was no obvious reason to change. Thomas is a quality player.”
However, the skipper being relegated to the bench is something of a tabloid hack’s dream, and there have been plenty of stories suggesting that Vermaelen wants to leave in the summer, if not in the up-coming January transfer window.
Maybe he does. In a World Cup year, with his nation having qualified for the Finals for the first time since 2002, Vermaelen will want to impress and play regularly. But even though he’s not first choice, I’m certain he will get his opportunities, and if he takes those opportunities by performing well, there’s no reason why he can’t win back a regular starting berth in the Arsenal line-up.
From the perspective of the club, I hear fans saying that he should be sold, and I’m baffled at the logic used to come to this conclusion. All we ever hear is how Arsenal need more quality and more depth in that position, so why would you sell your third choice centre-half? The club should only ever get rid of Vermaelen if they’re confident they can get someone better. But who, realistically, would be? And who would come, willing to play second fiddle to the established partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny?
I just think it’s far too early to write Vermaelen off as a player who’s ‘finished’ or ‘was never that good anyway.’ Clearly he was. Not top-bracket-Thiago-Silva-and-Sergio-Ramos-good, but good nonetheless. Certainly good enough to be next in line for Arsenal. There will be injuries; he will get his chance, and when it comes, I wouldn’t bet against him recapturing the form that gave him the affectionate, if slightly childish, nickname of ‘The Verminator.’ With a point to prove in perhaps the most important season of his career, we’ll soon find out just how good a player Thomas Vermaelen really is.