Dropping your team captain may certainly seem like a bizarre method of trying to save ones season, but if you’re Arsene Wenger, the recent sacrifice of relegating Thomas Vermaelen to the bench might just turn out to be the turning point in Arsenal’s season.
The Belgian international’s recent omission from the Gunners’ victories against Bayern Munich and Swansea City has been much publicized and with Wenger’s men managing to stop the rot with back-to-back victories, the Frenchman has been praised by some for taking the brave step of sacrificing his skipper for the greater good.
Yet despite the recent evaporation of the seven-point gap that had appeared between themselves and Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal head into the Premier League’s final straight with the damage to their league campaign already done. And for as admirable a decision it has been for Wenger to part with Vermaelen, it’s a decision that’s been a long time coming this season and perhaps one he could have made an awful lot sooner.
There is a tendency to read a little too much into a team’s change in fortunes following a minor change in personnel and the Gunners are going to have to sustain their recent good form for a lot longer than simply two games on the bounce for us to read too much into the absence of Vermaelen – and on a similar level, that of Wojciech Szczesny aswell – from this side. Despite the brief period of time that’s passed, however, it feels somewhat difficult to put the subsequent upturn in defensive form down to mere coincidence.
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With Vermaelen on the bench, Arsenal have looked infinitely more confident with the returning Laurent Koscielny partnering Per Mertesacker at the back and the proof has been in the pudding. Far from simply winning what many perceived to be a dead rubber in the Champions League last-16 second leg tie against Bayern Munich, not only did Arsenal run them close to a shock exit, they also became the first side to shut the German team out all season.
Followed up by a crucial 2-0 victory away to Swansea City at the Liberty stadium and in the space of little over 10 days, the Gunners’ season has gone from being planted on top of the proverbial scrapheap by some, back to real contenders for Champions league qualification.
But even if the duo of Koscielny and Mertesacker do go on to start leaking goals over the next couple of games, the question must be asked why it’s taken so long for Wenger to ditch Thomas Vermaelen in favour of giving the Frenchman and the German more than simply the odd run out together.
In recent days, Wenger has suggested that the captain’s armband will play very little part in influencing his decision upon whether to reinstate Vermaelen to the starting line-up. But the fact it’s taken him until mid-March to wield the axe upon the former-Ajax man tells a different story.
Because while it’s been easy to point the figure at Vermaelen for Arsenal’s recent defensive woes, the critique that seemed to descend itself into a moral panic in the wake of this month’s 2-1 defeat to Spurs, served to totally ignore the longetivity of Vermaelen’s descent.
It’s easy to pick upon individually poor flash-points, but when you think of some of the more prominent Vermaelen horror-shows this season, they’ve hardly been consigned to a couple of poor weeks in close proximity.
The games against Manchester United away from home, the 2-2 draw with Liverpool at the Emirates as well as the aforementioned North London derby at White Hart Lane, represent three of the more notably poor Thomas Vermaelen performances of this season. Yet with those fixtures having come in November, January and March respectively, you’re offered a fitting snapshot of the continued mire that Wenger’s number five has endured this season.
Given that his woeful showing in the 2-1 defeat away to United hardly came after a vintage opening few weeks of the season, you could make a case that he should have been dropped at the start of November, let alone the middle of January. But still Wenger has persisted on playing him, even though Vermaelen has shown little sign of improvement as the campaign had drawn on.
One bad season doesn’t make a bad player and it’s important to note that the Gunners’ defensive problems stem far greater than simply one off-key individual. But regardless of how good Vermaelen might be on his day or how valuable the balance his left-foot might bring to the rearguard, the fact is he should have been axed from the starting XI quite some time ago.
Would the Gunners have been higher up the league had they parted with their captain earlier on in the term? Who knows, but it’s within the latter part of that statement in which it feels hard to buy the sincerity of Wenger’s denial that the captaincy afforded Vermaelen a stay of execution.
As the Frenchman has acknowledged, English football’s natural affinity with the captaincy ensured that there was always going to be a natural furor upon the absence of Vermaelen from this side. Yet judging by the time it’s taken for him to be dropped, you get the impression that affinity perhaps rings a little more prominently for Wenger then he may be letting on.