Two summers ago, Thomas Vermaelen was heading towards being one of the world’s best defenders. Already a regular in Belgium’s side, one that seemed to have a golden generation arising, Vermaelen had locked down a place in Arsenal’s back four after some injury problems and was awarded the earned the Arsenal captaincy. But just twenty-two months later, Vermaelen has seen his career come to a crashing halt, both for club and for country. As he sat on the bench and watched his Belgian teammates struggle for much of their 2-1 win over Algeria today in the World Cup, Vermaelen had to be wondering where it all went wrong.
When Robin Van Persie left for Manchester United, Arsene Wenger didn’t have an obvious successor in his squad for the role of Arsenal captain. It’s a big job, as the player must take on added pressure both on and off the field as the official spokesman for the players. Wenger’s choice of Vermaelen seemed smart, if a little unexpected. A leader on the pitch, and a well-spoken gentleman off it, the Verminator seemed well suited for the job.
But as the 2012-2013 season wore on, Vermaelen’s form took a serious dip. Having kept Laurent Koscielny out of the side for months, Vermaelen struggled to defend suddenly. His marauding runs up the field were unwanted, as they left the slower Per Mertesacker exposed behind him. Long known for timely goal-scoring, Vermaelen also stopped finding the net. So when Arsenal traveled to Bayern Munich for the second leg of the Champions League tie that year, it was no surprise to see the captain left on the bench along with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny after a series of poor performances. But while Szczesny won his job back after a few weeks, Vermaelen did not.
Last year was an awkward one for Vermaelen. Still the Arsenal captain, he rarely saw the field. He had some minor injury issues, but those weren’t the reason he wasn’t playing. And as he watched, the duo of Koscielny and Mertesacker were hailed as Arsenal’s best in years. While this was going on, Belgian coach Marc Wilmots dropped Vermaelen due to his lack of playing time, and on account of the quality in that side, Vermaelen hasn’t won his place back.
Thomas Vermaelen is now at a pivotal moment in his career. Still 28, he should be in the prime of his career. But after an empty year, he needs a new start. This World Cup should make him realize that if he hasn’t already, because he could be a huge part of this dark-horse Belgian side were he in better form. However, Arsenal won’t let him go easily, because they need a third center-back in the squad, having lost the versatile Bacary Sagna to Manchester City. Needing a right-back, a forward and a winger, finding another center-back to replace Vermaelen is not a priority for Wenger, and until he finds cover, he shouldn’t let his captain go.
I’ve always admired Vermaelen for how he handled his being left out of the side. Knowing he wouldn’t play against Bayern, not many players would have been as professional as he was during his pre-match press conference that day. And last year, he hardly complained, doing his duties as captain while acting as one of Arsenal’s biggest cheerleaders. He got to lift the FA Cup last month as Arsenal’s captain, and you could see the joy in his face as he raised it. Clearly, he loves Arsenal, which is part of what made him such a great choice for the captaincy.
But for his sake, he needs a new start. I would hate to see this wonderfully talented player lose multiple years of his prime, and that is how it would be if he stays. Wenger should try and negotiate a swap-deal for another center-back to make his job easier in finding a necessary replacement, but he owes his captain a chance to see the field this year. If that’s not going to be at Arsenal, Wenger must let him find somewhere else to play. Ideally, he wouldn’t join a rival, and Wenger shouldn’t let him do that. But if Vermaelen wants a new start, he should get one.
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