By Josh Clarke
As Thomas Vermaelen plays out the fourth year of his Arsenalcareer the characteristics that led to the Emirates faithful christening him ‘the Verminator’ seem to have curiously abandoned him.
Admittedly the Belgium international still possesses the handy knack of making valuable contributions at the business end of the pitch – reference for example the last minute equaliser that led Arsenal to an undeserved period of extra-time in the Capital One Cup loss to Bradford.
Gone though, is the uncompromising centre-half whose all-purpose dependability was integral to his elevation to the captaincy of a side who suffered continued ignominy in the face of high profile departures – reference being given the runaround by Bantams striker Peter Hanson and, more importantly, the missed penalty that subsequently handed Arsenal the most embarrassing defeat of their modern era.
It took the signing from Ajax little to no time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League and he quickly forged a reputation as one of the division’s most solid defenders, his performances warranting his inclusion in the 2009/10 Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year. The fact that that season, he also outscored the likes of both Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott only sweetened the deal for Gunners fans.
From that point on things look to have got progressively more difficult for Vermaelen, culminating in an error-strewn season that has led many to question his automatic inclusion in the Gunners first team. A dismal performance at Manchester United, an alleged rollicking for his role in the 2-0 home defeat to Swansea and an unwanted starring role against Bradford spring to mind.
Injuries have played their part. Since an uninterrupted first season at the club Vermaelen has had to make do with an Arsenal career that has moved along in fits and starts. Difficulties arising from an Achilles injury saw 2010/11 effectively written off, with the problems running on into the season after.
So too has the merry-go-round of personnel at the Emirates. In that 2009/10 season Vermaelen was bedded in alongside seasoned campaigners and patriots William Gallas, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. Manuel Almunia provided a regular, if unspectacular, reference point in goal. Since then only Sagna remains at the club, with Wenger having also experimented with variations of the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Goalkeepers too have been transitory. Such juggling of a defensive set, whether reactive to injuries of not, is unparalleled in the Premier League and hardly conducive to the good form of its components.
Vermaelen’s intermittent deployment as a left-back has not helped either, with promising displays being offset by general wastefulness in possession and disregard for defensive cover when charging forward. Shunting the Belgian out to the left side of defence may be Wenger’s way of acknowledging Koscielny and Mertesacker as his first-choice centre-half pairing and perhaps rightly so, yet it does little for his club captain’s self-esteem.
The captaincy adds another layer to the question with Vermaelen now seemingly unable to be dropped off the back of continued poor form. It may be the case that responsibility and the task of replacing Robin van Persie as the symbolic heart of the north London club weighs too heavily on Vermaelen’s shoulders, particularly when there seem to be few candidates willing to lighten the load.
It could, simply, all boil down to the fact that Arsenal are not a top-level team anymore. It is easy to play well amongst top-class and assured players in a team thriving on confidence, yet Vermaelen does not have that luxury any longer.
Whatever the matter, Arsenal face Reading looking to remedy what is easily the most harrowing period of Wenger’s stewardship at the club. With Koscielny due to face a late fitness test, it is likely that Vermaelen will be given a chance to redeem himself in the position he was once a nailed-down certainty for. The club, the fans, Wenger and Vermaelen himself need the captain to rediscover the attributes that heralded the player’s once-apt nickname.
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