Arsenal have taken a considerable leap this summer, acquiring star names, much-needed replacements and high-ceiling prospects, all within the space of around three weeks. But the job isn’t done yet.
The club have done much to reinvent themselves thus far into the summer. Even with the signing of Mesut Ozil last year, there were still problems in making the transition from the old to the new. The German’s signing came late and provided a sharp boost in morale, but even then, Arsene Wenger and the club were flying against the wind, told most strikingly during the January transfer window and the subsequent collapse in the team’s bid for the Premier League title.
Those problems are of the past. Even the disappointment at having shunned Cesc Fabregas earlier in this window is long since forgotten. Arsenal, backed with a strong budget and the freedom to use it, have negotiated their way onto a higher standing in European football. They have the talent, a recently-won FA Cup and the infrastructure to tempt and then secure some of the biggest and best names in European football.
But the final act must come from the Thomas Vermaelen transfer episode.
The Belgian international wants out, understandably, and Manchester United are interested. If Arsenal are serious about where they’ve come at this point and where they intend to go, they cannot sell their club captain to a domestic rival, especially not one with the history of United.
If Wenger does decide to sell Vermaelen – and I don’t believe he should; at least not this summer – it should be under his terms, not that of the player or another club.
If Arsenal can bat away the advances of a club like Manchester United, who both need and apparently want the Belgian, it will be to finally slam shut the door that remains ajar to the past, a past where the club could seemingly be bullied into submitting to Europe’s biggest names.
It’s finally time Arsenal took a page out of the books of their title rivals. Even Liverpool refused point blank to deal Luis Suarez to them last summer, and when the time came to sell the Uruguayan, Liverpool were all too happy to see him off to Barcelona, so long as he remained out of the grasp of those directly in competition with them.
Manchester United have done it before; so too have Chelsea. Arsenal, on the other hand, have a strong yet unwanted history of waving off key players to undesirable destinations. Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Gael Clichy were all sold to either of the Manchester clubs.
And it’s not just a matter of weighing up Vermaelen’s worth this time around. He may be easily replaceable, but it’s what his sale would represent that is far more important.
Arsenal are buying in the higher reaches of the transfer market. Alexis Sanchez following Ozil a year on is no fluke or fortune-driven acquisition: this is the club telling the rest of Europe that they mean business. But it doesn’t just come through the purchase of star players; it is reinforced by how you conduct yourself in the sales side of the market.
Bayern Munich have regularly been the club with which Arsenal have been compared, the standard to which the north Londoners aspire. The Bavarians may be the Bundesliga’s most powerful by quite a distance, but you never get the sense they’re being bullied into sales of important players. Even when selling Toni Kroos abroad to Real Madrid this summer, the general feeling was that the Germans were moving on a player they deemed dispensable. In fact, it was smart business to allow him to move on now and take on a transfer fee rather than allow him to move on a free next summer.
Arsenal do also have undetermined futures in Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, but those two cases are notably different to that of Vermaelen. Neither the German nor the Spaniard are discussion points for sales to domestic rivals, and both would be on the final say of Wenger. With Arsenal so strong in midfield and reportedly looking to add at least one more, they can afford to deal both players, who are approaching their thirtieth birthday.
But Vermaelen still has value. The centre of defence is particularly weak at Arsenal, with no obvious option beyond Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Calum Chambers may have a future there, but it would be negligent to draft him into that position at this stage of his career.
There is the Champions League qualifier to think about and, obviously, the start of the season, which may come too soon for one or both of Koscielny and Mertesacker.
Arsenal should upgrade at centre-back and bring in someone younger than Vermaelen. But this summer doesn’t have to be that time. This is a summer of strengthening, both the squad and the club’s reputation.
After so much work to acquire this new-found status, letting Vermaelen go to a club like Manchester United should not be an option.