Of a man named Tom, Robert Plant once sang,
Here’s a tale of Tom
Who worked the railroads long;
His wife would cook his meal
As he would change the wheel.
Poor Tom, seventh son,
Always knew what’s going on
There ain’t nothing that you can hide from Tom.
Now, of course, there is little in this song that actually relates to Thomas Vermaelen, forgotten love-child of Joaquin Phoenix and Justin Timberlake, except perhaps for the title. The song wormed its way into my head, and here we are. The captain has now sat out three straight games—Bayern, Swansea, and Reading—with little sign that there is room for him on the pitch, at least as a center-back. Koscielny has put forth several strong performances, including a MOTM-worthy display against Bayern. Mertesacker has been solid, if less so than Koscielny, but between them, it’s hard to find reason enough to drop one of them for Vermaelen. There don’t seem to be any compelling match-up reasons to rotate him in, either.Absent an injury or out-an-out poor performance (if not two), Vermaelen might just find himself consigned to the bench for even longer.
Is it merely coincidence that we’ve posted two clean sheets in Vermaelen’s absence, or is it something more? On one hand, many of our goals are down to individual errors (such as, ahem, flubbing a clearance that allows Van Persie to score inside of three minutes). Even if we suggest that, as captain, he should make sure that everyone is focused and knows their roles to a point that reduces, if not eliminates such errors, it’s a bit harsh to blame him for others’ errors. Without getting into an exhaustive analysis of the various goals we’ve conceded with Vermaelen on the pitch, it’s probably safe to say that he’s only to blame for his own errors. Even the first goal against Spurs, when Monreal released Lennon behind Vermaelen, is about as close as we might get to attributing another player’s mistake/bad decision to Vermaelen.
It was just a few weeks ago that Vermaelen was mentioned in rumors linking him to Barcelona, rumors I dismissed as gauche bargain-shopping from a team desperate to shore up its defense at our expense. Maybe they could put Alex Song back there? Anyway, the same rumors are indirect confirmation of Vermaelen’s reputation and quality, and we would be remiss if we were to overlook his contributions and potential. It’s true that his form has been patchy, to put it politely, and that some of this is probably linked to the pressures of being the team’s captain. It might just not be in him to shoulder that mantle; it might not suit his personality or play to his strengths in a way that it might for Arteta, for example. Stretching himself beyond his skill-set may have been just too much to ask. He might feel liberated without the arm-band and resurrect some of the form that, ironically, led to him earning that arm-band in the first place.
Would Vermaelen be open to a move to the left or right? He’s deputized there before, although this doesn’t mean he’s suited for it, nor is this necessarily better than the options we have there. Jenkinson and Sagna, Gibbs and Monreal—these are effective platoons already, and even with Monreal’s injury (sustained, it’s worth pointing out, in part because he didn’t adequately track Reading’s Robson-Kanu), there’s little space for Vermaelen on the left. With news out today that Gibbs is apparently one of England’s three best left-backs, it’s highly unlikely that there’s room in the mix for a third left-back. Ironically, it was just a few weeks ago that we were lamenting our defensive liabilities, and, now, apparently, we have too many good defenders. Gibbs and Jenkinson have rounded into form quite nicely, and the Mertesacker-Koscielny tandem seems quite strong. These developments, perhaps more than Vermaelen’s own form, seem to explain his demotion. Further compounding the trouble, it leaves Vermaelen with little opportunity to regain Wenger’s trust.
Coming out of the Reading game, the lone goal does offer Wenger evidence enough to restore Szczęsny as the first-choice keeper. The evidence against Koscielny or Mertesacker is too thin to justify a similar switch. It may just have to come down to Wenger looking at our schedule and deciding to rotate Vermaelen in under the guise of keeping players fresh—and his earliest opportunity might just be the stretch of three games in seven days (Norwich, Everton, Fulham). I don’t see Vermaelen getting a chance against West Brom, unfortunately, at least not as a freshness issue. If Wenger is wise, he’ll work Vermaelen in for Koscielny in one match, and then for Mertesacker in the other, not necessarily in that order. This restores Vermaelen’s position, gives him a chance to play, and affords legitimate rest to both of his teammates. Win-win. What comes after that, however, will have to depend on performance. Let’ hope all three make it as difficult a decision for Wenger as possible.