Category Archives: Thomas Vermaelen

It looks like Vermaelen is off to Barça. £10m? Works for me.

Official confirmation is still in the offing, but a saga that has dragged on since the middle of last season looks to be entering its final chapter as Thomas Vermaelen looks ready to finalize a move to Barcelona, continuing a trend of Gunners leaving for the sunnier climes of Spain. There was a time when such moves would lead us to gnash teeth and rend garments, but this move feels quite a bit different. At the risk of slighting Vermaelen, the Camp Nou Express is no longer carrying coveted players but settling for second-choicers. Some may quibble with the reported transfer-fee, but I’d much prefer selling Vermaelen out of the Prem than to a rival like Man U. He may not be quite good enough to crack our starting XI, but if Barça need him, so be it.

We might mark the beginning of the end at 3 March 2013. For those with addled brains, that’s the North London Derby that Tottenham found a way to win. The scene: Nacho Monreal had just joined the squad a month before. We were committed to playing a high defensive line—even though Tottenham featured Bale and Lennon, two fleet and occasionally dangerous wingers. Vermaelen, our captain, was twice culpable as Tottenham exploited that high line to score on their way to a 2-1 win. It was a nadir but not the death-spiral that a certain manager consigned to the Russian hinterlands dubbed it. It was also the match that may have marked the end of Vermaelen’s time in London as well.

From that point forward, Vermaelen would play sparingly, relegated to the bench by the emergence of the Kos-Per axis (and the Arteta-Ramsey one as well) as we developed a firm defensive foundation for the first time since perhaps the Graham years. Vermaelen was never truly a defender; his forward-thinking instincts always dominated, resulting in the delivery of some famous goals but exposing him and the squad to disastrous concessions to boot. Most famous, of course might have been the “assist” at Old Trafford when Vermaelen squibbed a clearance that van Persie, himself freshly away from Arsenal, blasted home. That, of course, was back in 2012, but it looks, in retrospect, to be an omen rather than an aberration.

Throughout the entire 2013-14 season, he’s become little more than an afterthought, an “oh yeah, whatever happened to Tommy Vermaelen?” His cameos here and there only serve to highlight his relegation. Through the ordeal, though, he has endured it with nothing but class and dignity. A lesser man would have found ways to leak his dissatisfaction to the press or been photographed smirking or sulking during a match. Vermaelen has been loyal, perhaps to a fault, as he’s watched his chance at first-team football fade, first with Arsenal and then again with Belgium in the World Cup. At 28, this may have been his last best chance at representing his country. He missed it with nary a mutter.

If this rumored move to Barça proves true, Vermaelen will likely pair with Piqué while winning a few pieces of silverware along the way. I don’t mind that in the least. It’s far-better, of course, than seeing him help Man U climb back towards relevance.

All in all, this deal looks like it would be a win-win. The player gets a chance at first-team action and silverware; the club clears roster-space and sheds a non-homegrown player. That’s a nice bit of business with no hard feelings to be found. If I may say so, it may even start to look like Barça’s players are looking to Arsenal as a promotion while Gunners are looking to Barça as an opportunity for first-team action. We live in interesting times…

We’re in for Nastasić, are we? Hmm…

Well, it’s not the wildest of rumors, but reports from Italty’s tuttosport and England’s El Metro suggest that we will make a move for Man City’s centre-back, Matija Nastasic. The 21-year old Serb would make for a more-than-capable upgrade on our Thomas Vermaelen (sorry, Tommy) and was good enough to replace Joleon Lescott as a first-choice CB and being named Citeh’s Young Player of the Year in 2013. As unlikely as they are to sell him to a league-rival, Citeh have picked up another centre-back, paying out £32m for Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala, giving them six CBs in the squad (seven if we count Sagna), and they might be willing to move Nastasic. Would we be willing to pay £15m for him? He’s Prem-tested centre-back, something we may have only two of if Vermaelen completes a move to Barcelona (or, yes, Man U).

First, a few particulars. He’s played in the Prem since 2012, making 34 appearances in that time. He’s massive, standing 1.87m (6’2″). As you might imagine, he’s strong in the air, but he doesn’t seem to trade height for pace, offering speed and agility to the mix. He made just 11 starts this past season due to injury-woes (mostly to his knee). If there’s a worry there, it’s that he last played for club or country way back in early February. He was apparently suffering some pain in his knee which doctors struggled to diagnose. This might raise some red flags (or inspire some Gooners to quip that he’s already got that Arsenal DNA. However, if this injury and the arrival of Mangala have made him surplus to Citeh’s requirements, this might make him available at more of a cut-rate price (again, Gooners, prepare your quips).

One other particular to consider: he should not count against the homegrown rule, and the Prem site lists him in Citeh’s U21 squad. his is a factor to contemplate, especially as our current squad already has 16 non-homegrown players, one less than the maximum seventeen that UEFA permits. We are close then to having to loan out or sell a non-homegrown player before acquiring another one, or risk being unable to register one of those for Champions League play. We need a minimum of eight home-grown players on our roster (not on the pitch), and so we do, at some level, have to be mindful of that factor. Here’s a quick run-down of our players who are not home-grown:

  • Ospina, Mertesacker, Kos, Vermaelen, Monreal, Debuchy; Flamini, Diaby, Rosický, Arteta, Özil, Cazorla; Miyaichi, Podolski, Giroud, Alexis, Campbell.
On that list, of course, are two players likely to be loaned out or sold: Vermaelen and Miyaichi. Let’s focus on Vermaelen as being most-relevant at the moment. If we do sell him to Barcelona and bring in Nastasić, we’re accomplishing a number of goals: one, we add to the squad without adding a non-homegrown player. Two, we upgrade at centre-back, at least in my opinion. Three, we start building our post-Per/Kos defense around Chambers and Nastasić.  However, we would be doing so by keeping our number of non-homegrown players close to the limit, which starts to limit our options unless Vermaelen (and Miyaichi, among others) leaves.

Don’t tell me that clubs don’t sell to interleague rivals. Heck, we do it all the time.  Okay, bad example. Ahem. Could we ring up Mansour and point out that, hey, he’s bought Touré, Adebayor, Clichy, Nasri, and Sagna, and maybe he owes us one? That might be a bit of a stretch, but stranger things have happened, not that we can count on this particular strange thing happening.

We know that we need more cover at centre-back. Chambers needs time and experience. Vermaelen is all but gone. As unlikely as it may feel to us to sign the likes of Nastasić, he’s young, he’s apparently available, he’s familiar with the Prem, and it’s difficult to think of another centre-back who can offer that same combination of qualities. So Citeh might inflate their asking-price. At a time when other clubs are “overpaying” for young players, is £15m for Nastasić “overpaying”?

Vermaelen to Vanchester continues to vex Wenger…

As we prepare to face Benfica in the Emirates Cup, there’s a lot of talk of who we will and won’t see. We won’t see Mertesacker, Podolski, or Özil, who are resting; nor will we see Walcott, Ospina, or Sanogo, who are injured. We may or may not see Alexis, Debuchy, or Chambers. Another Gunner is listed as injured, but this might be a gambit of sorts related to a potential transfer. We won’t see Thomas Vermaelen, our nominal captain, because he apparently has picked up an injury. He’s not in any pictures of the squad training, for what that’s worth. Has the time come for Tom to be gone?

All signs point to yes. He’s not been a good enough defender for us for some time now, playing at centre-back only when injuries or suspensions to others allow it. We arguably got better centre-back play from Sagna in the few instances he slotted over than when Vermaelen was playing his preferred position. Deployed at left-back and right-back at times, the man has been reduced to an afterthought for both club and country. At his age (28), he surely wants first-team action. It’s unlikely he’ll get it at Arsenal. Per and Kos partner too well together, and the arrival of Chambers suggests that Arsène is looking beyond Vermaelen for our centre-backs going forward. 
He’d be the ideal signing for Man U. For one, they’ve lost a great of experience and skill from last season’s defense, with Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, and Buttner gone. Smalling, Jones, and Evans are sure to step up, but Van Gaal needs to re-load, and fast. Under Van Gaal, Vermaelen would likely thrive. He’s the kind of forward-thinking defender that would fit in well with Van Gaal’s system.  With Vermaelen’s market-value sliding ever-downward, it’s probably in our best interests to unload him, even if this means we have to find a replacement. We’ve been lucky that neither Per nor Kos has succumbed to serious injury woes, but luck always run out at some point. Much as I might like to blithely say that Chambers can simply slide over or that Djourou is ready for a triumphant return, we really should have a third high-quality centre-back, perhaps even a fourth.

I know that the idea of reading another round of headlines bleating “Arsenal lose ANOTHER captain to Man U” could be painful, but this is hardly the same ball of wax. It’s been clear for some time that Vermaelen can’t crack our starting line-up, not as a centre-back, not as a right- or left-back, and not, as is so often suggested, as a defensive-midfielder. So he might as well be on his way to a club that needs his services but perhaps has lower amibitions. Man U appears to fit that bill quite nicely. However, if we are to sell to a league-rival, we should extract as much out of them as we can. Vermaelen’s market-value hovers somewhere in the £12m range. If Man U want him, they can have him—for £25m. If they stick to £12m, we insist on getting Kagawa as make-weight.

After all, Man U’s need for an experienced, familiar-with-the-Prem centre-back, coupled with Van Gaal’s system, make Vermaelen the perfect centre-back for their needs. All the more reason to sell the man on—to Barcelona or Napoli. I don’t mind losing Vermaelen. He had his moments, both good and bad, but we’re not content to finish fourth (not that we ever were). We have serious designs on winning the Prem, and I can’t quite convince myself that he’s the captain or the centre-back we need to get us there. He’s taking his lumps about as well as anyone can, and out of respect to his loyalty, if not his quality, we should send him somewhere where he can actually play. All the best to you, Tommy.

Chambers’s versatility: an asset or a liability?

As we appear to approach closer and closer to a deal on Southampton’s Calum Chambers, the talk has focused on his youth and his versatility. Having played as a right-back, centre-back, and as a defensive midfielder, Chambers seems to check several boxes: he can compete with Debuchy (and Jenkinson?) at right-back while also supporting or competing with Kos, Per, and Verm at center-back. In a pinch, it’s possible that he could also slot in in the defensive midfield. All of this versatility should feel very reassuring as we fret over our options—will Vermaelen stay? Will we land Schneiderlin or Khedira? Absent any certainty around these and other questions, Chambers seems to settle our stomachs a bit. Should he, though? A quick review of other similarly “versatile” players should give reason for pause.

Chief among these cautionary tales would be one Jack Wilshere. For as wonderful and as occasionally breath-taking as he’s been, he’s struggled to find a regular position. Part of this, to be sure, comes from injuries, fitness, and competition. Taking a longer view, though, Wilshere appears a bit unsettled. Is he to become an attacking midfielder? If so, he’ll be competing with none other than Mesut Özil, widely and justifiably regarded as one of the very best at what he does. If Wilshere cannot compete with Özil, well, there’s no shame in that, is there? Casting about, the next most-natural location would be in the defensive midfield role. With Arteta and Flamini declining, it’s only natural that we look to Wilshere to step up as our next holding midfielder.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discusssed here, that role doesn’t suit him. He’s not a shielder, nor is he a tackler. He’s more comfortable at and better-suited to bombing forward, wreaking havoc in our opponents’ defensive third. That’s wonderful, and it’s something he’s very good at—but he may not be the best in the squad, not with Ramsey’s resurrection. As such, Wilshere has to carefully consider his career: to what position should he commit? Versatility, even in a system as fluid as Arsène’s, can become an albatross around one’s neck. That versatility, arguably, has hampered Wilshere’s progress just as much as injury has. It pains me mightily to write the following words: despite having been a Gunner since he was nine years old, he still hasn’t defined himself. Will he ever? I sorely want him to. It’s rare that we encounter a Gunner who’s also a Gooner.

Coming back to Chambers, what lessons can we draw from Wilshere’s experiences to this point? We’re told by none other than Arsène himself that the lad can play as many as three positions, four if we’re generous (right-back, centre-back twice, defensive midfield). That kind of flexibility is beguiling, especially as our pursuit of a ‘true’ defensive midfielder drags on. I almost feel as if I should create a key-board shortcut for “Khedira” and “Schneiderlin” just to avoid a few key-strokes. However, I worry that Chambers, like Wilshere, might struggle to define himself due to the very versatility that Arsène seems to admire. If the Chambers-Wilshere comparison doesn’t quite arrest your attention, perhaps a Chambers-Vermaelen one might? Like Wilshere, Vermaelen has found himself an odd man out, perhaps more because of form than injury, but hits ‘tweener status has relegated him to the end of the bench, so much so that the question “should Vermaelen be move to DM?” has become a bit of a running joke.

By contrast, consider Aaron Ramsey. For the first half of the 2012-13 season, he bounced around, displaying admirable versatility as he played as a winger, a defensive midfielder, and a right-back. None of this seemed to play to his strengths, skills, or aptitudes. He filled in well enough but didn’t drop jaws until he rediscovered himself as a box-to-box midfielder. Yes, his ability to fill in as needed was an asset to the club, but it wasn’t until he as allowed to play one role—as wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it was—that he truly started to shine. So I hope it will be with Wilshere. I would love nothing more than for the man to become the club’s most-talismanic player, even if it’s Ramsey’s name appearing in the spotlight more often.

If we are to complete a transfer for Chambers, I hope we learn a lesson from Wilshere’s fiftul progress and Ramsey’s spectacular season: commit the 19-year old to one position, rather than task him with learning the skills, mindset, positioning, and so many other elements of two or even three positions. Yes, a complete footballer should master all elements of the game, and, yes, becoming a complete footballer should know how to play as his own opposite in order to truly excel. However, at the risk of playing up a pun, one can be a jack-of-all-trades and an ace of none. If the pun rings true, then, where would Calum Chambers play? Would he sit behind Debuchy? At a reported £16m transfer-fee, that seems dicey. Would he commit instead to the defensive-midfield role? This might feel like a budget-buy (not that I’d put it past Arsène to pull such a move) after the pursuit of Khedira and Schneiderlin. Chambers is tall enough (1.82m) to play as a centre-back; could this be his destiny?

At some point soon, Chambers will have to commit to a position in order to become the kind of player he seems poised to become. Whether that’s to happen at Arsenal, Southampton, or some other club entirely is another question.

And now, for something completely different: what of Vermaelen?

Earlier Monday, I went for something risqué and unpredictable, something difficult to pull off or understand even if I did pull it off—a little bit of satire, flogging those who flog Özil. Depending on whom you ask, I succeeded or failed in equally spectacular parts. The post in question was either too subtle to get or too straightforward to miss. I tend to side with the latter camp. Some folks prefer their satire to be more of the slap-stick variety, akin to a cold cod across the kisser. So be it. And now, for something completely different: a sincere, perhaps maudlin examination of the plight of Vermaelen, erstwhile captain and tarrying Tom.

What went wrong? The love-child of Jude Law and Joaquin Phoenix had gotten off to such a splendid start, scoring in his debut and adding a brace just a few weeks later. However, even in those early, heady days, there were omens, an own-goal against Chelsea chief among them. Then came the injury troubles. Once he recovered from those, the goals came again, both for and against Arsenal. Eventually, his form suffered so much that he was dropped, at first temporarily, and then permanently, as the Koscielny-Mertesacker axis evolved and solidified. Through it all, Vermaelen has taken it on the chin, never once grumbling (at least so far as I can find) about his demotion. One can probably count on one’s willie the number of clubs whose captain rides the bench week in, week out.

At one level, he was a proto-typical Wengerian player: forward-thinking and aggressive, if difficult to commit to a formal position. Wengerball, borrowing as it does from total football, depends on players confident enough to get out of those formal positions and to trade positions with each other almost as often as they pass the ball to each other. Vermaelen, as a center-back, has been so often guilty of bombing forward (whether that’s a commitment to a philosophy or a personality flaw is another question) that he’s been accused of being a midfielder in disguise: “should Vermaelen be converted to DM?” is a question almost as persistent as “will Arsenal sign anyone in this transfer window?”

As with most prototypes, his flaws are just as front-and-center as are his features. Yes, his aerial abilities have amazed. Yes, he can score a timely goal. Then again, he’s too often caught out of position. He has a strange proclivity for whiffs and gaffes. Under the pressure cooker that is the Prem, there is simply no time to work out the kinks. As such, Vermaelen’s flaws and weaknesses have ultimately proven to be too much to bear. Despite continuing to wear the captain’s arm-band, he’s become at best a squad-level player, getting most of his playing time in the early rounds of the league cup and FA Cup or thanks to injuries or fatigue to starters. In fact, some of his best work has come not as a center-back but as a left-back, where in the 4-2-3-1 played both by Arsenal and Belgium, he’s had a bit less responsibility and a bit more freedom to get forward, a role that might play to his strengths.

However, the bloom is apparently off the rose. It wasn’t so long ago that the likes of Barcelona were sniffing around to see if Vermaelen was available. Now, unfortunately, it’s only second-tier clubs like Man U and Napoli who are inquiring, and at prices barely higher than what Arsenal paid for him in 2009. Even in inflation-adjusted terms, that’s a damning indictment. Compared with other players who have come and gone, and whose value has risen dramatically, Vermaelen’s failure to boost his status is a bit of a disappointment, to put it mildly.

He’s a bit of a ‘tweener, a player caught between two or more positions. His size suggests that he play center-back; his mentality suggests that he play on the side. Sadly, the fate of most tweeners is to go by the wayside, even in a formation as ostensibly fluid as is Wenger’s. It’s been apparent for the last 20 months or so that Vermaelen’s future may lie elsewhere. If that proves to be Man U, so be it, but let it be known that their need to purchase him exceeds our need to sell him. Perhaps they can offer Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans as makeweight?