I find Arsenal’s defensive frailties this season a rather perplexing issue. While poor individual performances from Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen have been aplenty, and furthermore, the Gunners have undergone a whole season with Mikel Arteta, traditionally an attacking wideman, in defensive midfield, the Premier League’s final standings show that the North Londoners are privy to the second best defensive record in the English top flight, with their Goals Against total of 37 only beaten by Manchester City, who finish the season having conceded on just 34 occasions.
The impressive feat is in no small part due to Arsenal’s strong form throughout the business end of the season, having not lost since the second North London derby in early March, despite at the time many declaring that their campaign was now over, and in the process recording eight victories in their last ten domestic fixtures, along with five clean sheets – six if you include their 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
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But underpinning their success over the past few months has been two key individuals at the heart of Arsenal’s defence – Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. The pair have been exceptional, striking up an understanding which appears to get the best out of both of them, tailored to their specific skills set. The Frenchman has been speedy, resilient and intelligent, recording the fifth highest ratio for ground duels won in the Premier League according to OPTA, while his German accomplice has used his height and reading of the game to be the ninth most effective centre-back in the division in the air – the most consistent out of all of the top four clubs.
The formidable partnership appears to have come at a price for the Gunners however, with club captain Thomas Vermaelen forced into taking a back seat whilst his team-mates provide some much needed consistency and simplicity to Arsenal’s formerly shaky backline. The Belgian international has made just a single 90 minute appearance since coming unstuck in Arsenal’s last defeat to Tottenham, in which he was charged by the Sky Sports punditry team as being at fault for both of Spurs’ goals. He was dropped, along with Wojceich Szczesny, for the European clash with Bayern Munich, and has ever since taken up a regular spot on Arsene Wenger’s subs bench.
It begs the question as to whether there is any need for the 27 year old at the Emirates anymore. With two years left on his current contract, this summer represents as good an opportunity as any to sell, and despite Vermaelen’s lacklustre form, there are reportedly a host of European clubs, including Barcelona, showing a fleeting interest.
Whilst in the past many praised the Arsenal defender’s capability on the ball, citing his consistent passing, contribution of goals and ability to surge forward out of the back to launch attacks, I have been critical of Vermaelen for some time. In my opinion, his overall game has been incredibly overrated by the fact he is the kind of player to put in an all-action performance, often full of tackles, challenges in the air and bursting runs out of defence, but the fact is, a footballer who plays on the edge in the manner of the Belgian, can never be in the right place at the right time for a full 90 minutes, which after all is what centre-backs are on the pitch to do.
I have no doubt in Vermaelen’s abilities as an athlete – he possesses a great leap, good pace and considerable strength – but when it comes down to reading the game, defensive nous and concentration, the core characteristics required by even the lowest quality of non-league central defenders, I find him incredibly lacking. Per Mertesacker’s consistency, despite turning and moving at battle cruiser speed has really shown his team mate up this season, using the traditional methods of positioning, strength and height in sharp contrast to the more aesthetic style of the Belgian. Similarly, Vermaelen’s superficial nature is further shown by the fact that criticism and scrutiny surround his performances has increased dramatically from seasons previous, coinciding with the defender’s supply of goals drying up this year.
Furthermore, the Arsenal skipper has done anything but lead by example since being appointed captain in the wake of Robin Van Persie’s departure at the start of the season. His miss from the spot during a now infamous penalty shoot-out against Bradford in the Capital One Cup was not only a moment of failure for Vermaelen considering his integral role in the first team donning the arm band, but furthermore appears to be a moment in his career which he is yet to successfully recover from, with the Gunners leaking 21 goals in their next 11 fixtures until Arsene Wenger made the call to drop the 27 year old, followed by Arsenal conceding just six times in their final nine games in his absence.
It perhaps suggests that the Arsenal boss should take away his lacklustre star’s extra responsibilities as captain ahead of next season rather than feel compelled to move him on, as it appears to have overlapped with his woeful form and the two factors could well be connected. It does not necessarily mean that he is a poor quality player, but rather he does not handle the pressure of the armband well, and in the past Vermaelen has on occasion put in exceptional performances. Furthermore, it would be wrong to judge a footballer on a single season from a whole career – then again, there is an old adage that you are only as good as your last game.
On the other hand, Arsene Wenger has never been one to resist making a profit out of a player, and having bought Vermaelen four years ago at a relatively cheap price of £10million, you’d feel that his time at the Emirates has certainly added value to his market worth, considering he is now tried and tested in one of Europe’s most competitive top flights rather than being an Ajax youngster known for his potential.
Yet, with the coming transfer window set to be an incredibly busy one at the Emirates, with the likes of Bacary Sagna, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Andrei Arshavin, Sebastien Squillaci, Johan Djourou, Andre Santos, Marouane Chamakh, Emmanuel Frimpong, Gervinho and Lukas Fabianski expected to be departing for pastures new, it would make sense to keep Vermaelen in North London to maintain a level of consistency if nothing else, and furthermore, he is more than capable in terms of ability of being a third choice centre-back, should he be happy with such a limited role. Similarly, with Arsene Wenger reportedly spending big in the summer as a means to improve the first team, adding further replacements to the mix will only complicate matters and take away from the summer budget.
Having said that, if the papertalk surrounding interest from Barcelona proves to be true, my gut feeling is that the Arsenal boss would be willing to sell his defender should the price be right. Considering Vermaelen has overall failed during a season where his club has need him most, in terms of leadership and performances amid Arsenal’s current malaise, it may well be for the best for the player and the club to politely part company on good terms, rather than the 27 year old becoming yet another expensive piece of deadwood at the Emirates.