Amid speculation that Thomas Vermaelen is on the radar of Barcelona ahead of this summer, Arsenal will need to buck the trend of surrendering their best players and keep hold of the current club captain.
Maybe it will prove to be an offer Arsenal can’t turn down, especially if they fail to land Champions League football next season. Perhaps Arsenal are rolling the dice themselves and view the Belgium international as expendable following a string of poor performances. But considering the club’s approach to the transfer market and their intentions to mould unknowns into their own image, losing a player of Vermaelen’s quality and status could prove to be a significant blow.
You have to ask whether Vermaelen’s performances this season have been an accurate portrayal of a player’s diminishing powers, or whether it’s as a result of the coaching setup at the club.
Prior to this year, Vermaelen was the standout central defender at Arsenal, looking set to partner the ever improving Laurent Koscielny as the first-choice centre-back pairing. This season, however, has seen the captain’s armband become something of a burden on Vermaelen’s shoulders. He no longer looks the commanding presence at the back and the leader the team need. Even after only a couple of months at the club following his move from Ajax in 2009, the Belgian looked to exude a level of leadership that may have been lacking for a number of seasons: a young player, but nevertheless steely in his approach to the game.
What is it Arsenal have needed in defence since the Invincible were torn apart? Skill and technique? With any Arsene Wenger team you can always count on that being a notable component of a player’s makeup. Vermaelen had that in his locker but so much more. He was the passionate figure that the team needed, the defender who would perform last-ditch tackles and force others to raise their game. Arsenal needed far more than just a player comfortable on the ball and with a fair bit of pace to perform adequately in the team’s high defensive line; Vermaelen looked to be the natural successor for the armband.
I’m not entirely convinced that the captaincy has played a role a hindering the player’s performances this season. After all, he was captain of Ajax and previously of the Belgian national team. Whatever deficiencies he may have in his game, natural leadership doesn’t appear to be one.
But it does seem clear that the overriding spiky atmosphere at the club and the team’s tendency to self-destruct have taken their toll. And it’s not just Vermaelen who has looked out of sorts; Santi Cazorla hasn’t always been the creative centre point of a team he can be, while even experienced and reliable players like Bacary Sagna have seen their performances take a nosedive.
It’s not just about sticking a group of good footballers together and hoping for the best, even the very best need some form of guidance and a plan. Barcelona, currently without their manager in the dugout, are evidence of this.
So what happens if Arsenal decide they do want to continue in a similar vein to previous summers by selling off big names in the team? Whatever may be said of Vermaelen’s performances, there’s no running away from the tag that Arsenal would have of losing three captains in three successive summers. It says a lot about the way Wenger has cheapened the armband, offering it to players as a bargaining chip for the last decade and subsequently going on to devalue the status of the team captain by proclaiming that he often has 10 or even 11 captains on the pitch at any one time. It may not mean much to Wenger, or he may just be looking to further that ‘socialist’ environment that seems to stem from the wage structure, but players continue to view the captaincy in its traditional sense, rather than just something of a formality.
If Arsenal lose Vermaelen at the end of the season, they’ll be consigned to an unnecessary but predictable headache in the transfer market and the likelihood of having to wait a period of at least six-months for a new arrival to bed in.
Yet forget form and what may be gained from selling Vermaelen; where is the sense in letting go of a 27-year-old international centre-back with a great deal of Champions League experience? Vermaelen isn’t a bad defender, nor is he able to transform from arguably the club’s best to something of a liability overnight.
Arsenal need experienced figures, natural leaders and players who are normally considered to be among the team’s best. Parting company with Vermaelen may have some level of upside to Arsenal financially, but it will be far too much of a loss to the team on the whole.
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