Summer is often a time when Arsenal fans renew their membership to the AA (Anxious and Angry) club as they wait for ‘impending’ transfers. There is a tacit implication that we should be doing business as soon as the season finishes. Wenger and his team of scouts should be fervently scouring the world for the best players, they should be on the ‘dog and bone’ to Ancelotti enquiring about Benzema and Di Maria, sending emails to Real Sociedad about acquiring the services of Griezmann and Vela and releasing the carrier pigeons to Toulouse (I don’t know why but I feel carrier pigeon is just something they use in Toulouse) as they entice Aurier into a big money move. When they are not contacting clubs and scouting players in the World Cup they should be on Football Manager looking for any insight they can garner.
Transfer speculation aside, this summer Wenger has a chance to put his foot down and dictate how much action we should be doing in the window. It is clear that a right back is needed, a striker will be acquired and potentially a midfield recruit (although I have a feeling it will be an attacking wide player rather than a bull-dozing, testosterone sniffing, Vieira-Pogba-esque hybrid that so many fans long for). These three positions aside, there is a smidgen of uncertainty over one or two players – namely the charismatic Podolski and the steely eyed first team captain Thomas Vermaelen.
I think Podolski will stay as he is settled – and despite him wanting to play more centrally, I feel he will acknowledge that he has a role at the club to play and he will continue to do what is asked of him. Thomas Vermaelen is a different proposition. Vermaelen throughout his first season looked to be a star signing. He was a tenacious, scary looking centre back, quick in the tackle and seemed to read the game fairly well – questions were asked about his lack of height, given our propensity for conceding goals at corners, throw ins, opposition goal kicks, gusts of wind but after a few weeks it was obvious that Vermaelen was capable of combating his lack of height with a terrific leap and timing of his run. He recorded a phenomenal 7 goals in 33 Premier League games that season.
7 goals from a centre back is a Brucey Bonus, it’s something that every team would delight in, especially given the fact that we rarely ever threaten to score from corners. Stop! Rephrase that, we are about as threatening from corners as Mikaël Silvestre is in a foot race with Theo Walcott. The problem with Vermaelen’s 7 goals was that it somewhat disguised his deficiencies. It’s now become apparent that he isn’t quite the centre back we thought he was – he dives in recklessly, loses possession too easily and gets caught out of position on too many occasions. But I can accept these flaws as he is not part of our first team.
I don’t think we will see him breaking up the Mertescielny Axis of Awesome (it would be the equivalent of liver without the onions) or getting in before a fit Kieran Gibbs. He is now, most certainly, a backup centre back. But with one year left on his contract it’s been muted that the Belgian is keen to get away and play some first team football. Normally if a player is not of the required quality of the Arsenal first team, I am non-fussed to see them leave. I like to think that our bench should contain players who are of similar quality to our starters, such as Flamini and Rosicky, or young and upcoming, like Oxlade Chamberlain and Sanogo, or offer something slightly different to our first team game plan, like Podolski who can smash a ball quite hard. Vermaelen however, doesn’t really suit any of these – he is not of the same quality of Koscielny or Mertesacker, he is no hot young prospect and I certainly don’t think centre back is the position in which we look for something ‘a bit different’.
What he is though, is a top quality third choice centre back. Looking through all the squads in the Premier League, I really don’t see any squad that has a centre back as strong as Vermaelen as their third choice. We have a player who is, arguably, in the prime of his career. He has been with Arsenal since 2009 and knows the club inside and out. He is the first team captain when on the field and obviously has attributes to support his appointment. He is a full international, having captained his country on a few occasions before losing his place through injury.
With a year left, some may argue that we should take what we can for him now and reinvest in a player that will want to play for Arsenal for years to come but I disagree. We are now in a financial situation were losing a player on a free is not the worst possible outcome – we can take a small hit on a player and tell them to stay put and honour their contract.
In the past we have allowed van Persie, Fabregas and Henry amongst others to leave because their contract was coming to an end or they had decided to force a move. For Henry I hold no resentment, and even with Cesc I understand his desire to move, but we simply caved when van Persie decided that he would rather have something shiny than honour the club who had supported him throughout his injury plagued career.
Vermaelen is similar – he has suffered numerous back and achilles injuries in the past and the club has been left short in his absence. When he returned from injury he was offered the captaincy – a sign of the respect the club held for him. But now that he is no longer first choice, Vermaelen would rather move. There is nothing to begrudge in a player who wants to play football but we must think of the club’s needs first.
If Wenger chooses to deny Vermaelen a move, the result could be twofold. Firstly we hold onto a player who can clearly contribute to the team when we need him, a player who most clubs outside the top four and even one or two in the top four (I’m looking at you Liverpool) would probably have as a first team player. Secondly, it could prove a turning point in Arsenal’s resolve – we would show that the players who hold so much of the power are not omnipotent in this game. Their contracts actually stand for something and they will not hold the club to ransom anymore. It is somewhat fanciful but in the future it may dissuade players from pressing for a move or holding out on signing a new contract for so long on the belief that the club will gladly hold onto you and keep you on the bench.
Of course a lot of this is circumstantial – but I feel in this particular case we should gamble and hold onto Vermaelen in the belief that he will continue to be professional and play to the best of his ability and further down the line may be convinced to renew his contract.
In the meantime – I would rescind the captaincy and award it to someone who is entirely focused on Arsenal, personally I would choose Mertesacker but Wenger may opt to look at a younger player, such as Ramsey, in order to demonstrate that no one is bigger than the club.
In a summer that we will be looking to tie up transfers in two or three key areas, the last thing we need is to go hunting for a second choice centre back.
Til next time,