Closely cropped hair. A deadly, cold stare. A posture that exudes confidence and assurance. A lethal yet cultured left foot. Standing tall, all 6 feet at the heart of defence. That for you is Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal captain and left-sided centre back.
In his debut season the Belgian International proved all his critics, including a rather vociferous Tony Adams, completely wrong. With his average height and relatively slight build, fans and pundits had already dismissed him as a 'typical Wenger signing' i.e. small, slight, technically adept but not someone who could tough it out in England. He wasn't helped by being relatively unknown, in spite of being Ajax captain and a regular for the Belgian national team. Fans expected a big, bruising centre half to replace Kolo Toure, who had left the acrimonious company of William Gallas for the moneyed offerings of rapidly rising Manchester City. What they got instead was a mobile, ball-playing centre half who made his bones as a left-back in the Eredivisie.
But Big Tommy V (hat-tip to Arse2Mouse) proved to be the swashbuckling, tough-tackling centre half so many of us had craved in the years past. His debut season, which was undoubtedly his finest, saw him score 8 goals in 45 games and take a place in the PFA Team of the Year. He was a leader, a no-nonsense, shirt-tucked-black-boots-old-school type, a throwback to the days of Martin Keown and Tony Adams. The future seemed bright for Vermaelen and many hoped he would be appointed captain when Fabregas eventually left for Barcelona.
This season has been a more of a plateau for the Verminator, with occasional bumps and depressions. He hasn't struck the heights of his debut season, a dip in form that has been evident since the tail end of last season, where he came off the back of a mysterious Achilles injury that kept him out for the majority of 10/11. Moreover he has made glaring errors which would have seen players like Mertesacker and Djourou crucified. He has also not been at his goalscoring best, scoring only once, at Bradford in the Capital One Cup if memory serves. He has stabilised recently, with a run of decent performances, but I have not seen the swashbuckling Vermaelen that I love for a long, long time. Why is this so?
1. The Captaincy
With van Persie's departure, Vermaelen was quite predictably made captain of the club. In becoming so, he had big boots to fill. I hate van Persie as much as the next person but I will be the first to admit that he was the captain Arsenal needed. He lead from the front (literally and figuratively), fought for the team and lifted the squad when malaise set in. So far this season, I have seen none of these things from Vermaelen. I think this is down to the fact that while he loves to lead, he struggles under the burden of responsibility. In his debut season, Vermaelen was expected only to defend, not to organize or lead. He couldn't be held accountable for the team playing badly and that contributed to his confidence which fuelled his reckless runs forward that often led to goals. Now he is visibly restrained, told to maintain his defensive discipline first and also to organise both the team and defence. For a player like Vermaelen, showing such restraint inhibits natural aggression and recklessness.
I have also noticed that Vermaelen is a player whose self-esteem and leadership abilities are very strongly linked to form. During his struggling start to the season, there was a notable void in the heart of defence in an organisational sense. There was no vocal leader barking out orders. I was criticised earlier for saying this but a captain should be one who should maintain his authority independent of form. Despicable as he is, John Terry leaves no one in doubt of who the Big Daddy on the pitch is, regardless of his on-field form and off-the-field controversies. Vermaelen needs to realise that on the pitch he is the boss, the team looks to him for guidance and that when times are tough, he has to motivate them and lift their spirits. Arsene repeats the 'we have leaders in all parts of the pitch' line quite often, but football doesn't work that way. And I am not even sure that he himself believes in that statement.
2. The Great Annual Arsenal Exodus
Vermaelen played in an Ajax team that lost two of its best players in Johnny Heitinga and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar whilst he was there. Ajax finished second that year, under his half-season of captaincy, with a disastrous showing in the Champions League. With Arsenal losing their best players in Nasri, Fabregas, Clichy, van Persie and Song in recent seasons and subsequently giving up the title chase early in the season, Vermaelen might've felt some dejà vu and thought that he had actually not progressed at all with his choice of clubs. Although he signed a new long-term contract last season, it did look as if the loss of van Persie came as a huge shock to him, especially because he was sold to United. Perhaps he lost confidence in the project that Arsène was trying to put in place and thought he had a better chance at success elsewhere. He certainly seemed unsure of what was expected of him as a senior player and captain at the beginning of the campaign, especially against the 'big teams' like United, Chelsea and Schalke.
Now to come to the second part of my article. I feel that our lack of a defensive minded midfielder can be addressed by making use of someone within our ranks. If you haven't guessed it already, I am talking about Thomas Vermaelen. He has everything you look for in a defensive midfielder: reasonably quick, physical strong, exceptional tackler, calm in possession and has a wide range of passing. His aggression and reckless style of play will actually suit this role, since he can bomb forward at will and have Arteta/Wilshere cover for him. Vermaelen has played in the defensive midfield role in the past, albeit sparingly. Considering that Arséne wanted to sign Vertonghen as a Petit-style holding midfielder, I am surprised that he has not thought of using Vermaelen in that role with Koscielny, arguably our best centre half, starting alongside Mertesacker. To me that offers a lot of balance and stability to our midfield while actually improving our defence. He can be accommodated in the stuttering 4-2-3-1 that Arséne insists on playing, with Arteta and Wilshere positioned in front of him and Santi being used on the wing.
I do not mean to take anything away from Arteta who has been more or less exceptional in the deep-lying midfield role this season, but it has been evident lately that as tiredness set in, he has been consistently overrun by more physical sides, like against Wigan and Newcastle. I still consider his reading of the game second only to Mertesacker, and the timing of his interceptions and tackles is matched by few in the squad but in games when it is necessary to wrestle the control of midfield back from the opposition (matches that have become uncomfortably less infrequent of late) the team needs an aggressive, tough tackler who can boss the midfield. Clichéd as that may sound, it is true and very evident if you have been watching Arsenal recently. I am also of the opinion that Arteta's qualities are best seen as a rotating pivot alongside a more physical defensive midfielder, the position he played last season. Pushing Vermaelen in his place will liberate him and allow him to exercise some attacking and creative freedom.
This proposition has two problems. Firstly, Vermaelen is very proud of his place in the Belgian National Team, and although his captaincy was usurped by Vincent Kompany due to his decline in form and Manchester City's rapid rise in the League, he still holds a starting spot and the Vice Captaincy. His reluctance in playing as left-back during our full-back crisis of 2012 is evidence of the fact that he values his role in the National Team and a change in position would affect that, considering also that if converted into a defensive midfielder, he will face stiff competition from Marouane Fellaini, who has been in sensational form this season.
Secondly, this is a purely theoretical scenario, and something that I have only implemented in FIFA and Football Manager (with impeccable results). Who is to say that it hasn't already been tried in training?
Shifting Vermaelen to the defensive midfield will, in my opinion, refresh both the midfield and the player in question. But the odds of this happening are not great and we will most probably move for a defensive midfielder in the current or future transfer window(s). Regardless, if you ever see an Arsenal team with Thomas Vermaelen playing as CDM online on FIFA, you know who it belongs to.
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Mean Lean's Response
Nice write up and well argued but personally I think it is one of those things that sounds good on paper but in fact in practice it wouldn't work, well not in our team and the way we play football. There is a huge difference between being a good passer and good in possession from the back than in the motorway speed of a Premier league midfield.
We, like many passing teams use our deepest midfielder to receive passes from our defenders with backs to goal often having to avoid pressing strikers and midfielder's, to have to twist and turn to then find the pass to a team mate. Often between the lines which can be risky depending on where the opposition players are on the pitch. A misplaced pass can put you in immediate danger.
Mikel Arteta plays that role for us and his ball possession numbers are fantastic, Vermaelen simply wouldn't come close to that. I could envisage him being caught in possession endless amounts of time and also misplacing many passes when being hounded by the opposition. Alex Song was far more mobile and technical than Thomas Vermaelen yet against teams that closed him down quickly like Barcelona, Everton and Swansea he struggled, holding the ball for too long and ultimately losing possession. Used to drive me mad at times.
I actually think Laurent Koscielny would do a better job in that role than Vermaelen but still nowhere near good enough for us in the way we play the game. In another system where the team often defended behind the ball and played a little longer, not relying on moving the ball through the midfield then it could work. Stoke City for example he could break up the ball and keep it simple and watch his center back's pump balls forward over his head but that is the opposite end of the Spectrum to us.
This is only my opinion and it wouldn't be the first time that I have been wrong but in my head I just couldn't see it working. Before Thomas Vermaelen played at left back for us, many Gooners were calling for him to played in that role, largely for the same reasons. He likes to get forward, he can shoot etc but in reality he is just not mobile enough to play that role for us.
Personally I believe that if Arsene is not going to give Coquelin a chance then he needs to invest in another player who can provide us what Arteta can but with additional physical power. I am still look at that transfer window hoping to see some bodies climb through.