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Another Wenger Gem
Ted Harwood is a new guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He lives in Chicago, IL, and has been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of a decade. He writes about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts on his blog, Running Downhill.
Thomas Vermaelen, age 23, was born in Kapellen, Belgium, a town roughly ten miles north of Antwerp. His career began at the Belgian club Germinal Beerschot Antwerpen, but the shy youth’s talent meant that he would not remain for long, especially after GBA began a partnership with Ajax in 1999. Vermaelen moved clubs shortly after the link was established and overcame his shyness to make his Ajax debut at age 18, playing at left-back, and immediately his talent was there for all to see. After a successful loan spell at RKC Waalwijk, Ajax brought him back and slotted him in next to the iconic Jaap Stam. Stam predicted great things for the young defender, now playing at center-half as well as left-back. Possessing great jumping skills, speed, and tenacity (on display as he bulldogged Robin van Persie during the 2007 Amsterdam Tournament), Vermaelen began to attract the attentions of numerous clubs around Europe, including Aston Villa and Arsenal, although Arsène Wenger, typically, kept his interest well-hidden.
The shortcomings of last year’s Arsenal compared with the other top three teams are apparent to everyone who takes a look at the 2008-09 table. The Gunners scored as many goals as champions Manchester United, second only to the prolific Liverpool, but conceded thirteen more than both Man U and Chelsea. Despite Wenger’s insistence that no one position was responsible for this problem, that the team defends as a team, most pundits and many Gooners insisted that the solution laid in a defensive destroyer, and that money should be no obstacle. Many names were tossed out, some old (Lescott, Mertesacker), some new (Hangeland), but everyone seemed to concur that the ideal newcomer would have to be a beast, showing little regard for human life as he cleared the airspace around the Arsenal goal. The ideal partner for the back-in-form William Gallas would be six-foot-five, have a vertical leap of something like three feet or more, and have a beard full of spittle and menace, everyone said.
Thus the arrival of Vermaelen in June for roughly £10m came as a bit of a surprise, and a bit of a letdown for those wanting a giant. Tony Adams, who had scouted the player for Wenger, told Setanta after the signing that thought “Thomas is a very good player, but I don’t think he’s ready for the Arsenal. I don’t think the punters at Arsenal would like another small one.” It is perhaps understandable that Adams would expect Wenger to bring someone in more in his legendarily solid mold to partner the mobile Gallas, especially given Arsenal’s perceived troubles defending set-pieces and crosses. However, those closer to Ajax told a different story. Ronald de Boer, the former Ajax and Rangers star, said ahead of the first Celtic match, “He didn’t play all that well for Ajax last season but he quite often had to play at left-back, which isn’t his best position, because he is left-footed. But, for me, he has all the skills to go on and be a great defender. He is very strong defensively, but can also play football too which is always useful.” He compared Vermaelen to his brother Frank and added that Vermaelen is “a bit meaner than my brother, which is not a bad thing at all.” No, indeed. Furthermore, he is only 23, and as defenders typically peak in their late 20s, Arsenal have a potential diamond in their hands.
Vermaelen’s performances so far this year support that feeling. His performance against Celtic at Celtic Park prompted Manuel Almunia to declare that Vermaelen’s confidence on the ball had calmed the Arsenal defense. Against Everton, his skills were on display for all to see. He frequently outleapt the much taller Jô and Marouane Fellaini, did well against the skill of Tim Cahill, and he has already displayed a nose for goal on set-pieces, scoring a header for Arsenal’s second goal of the match, although admittedly Everton’s defending was horrifying. He plays like a more tenacious and physical Kolo Touré, laying to rest any fears Gooners may have about selling the Ivorian to Manchester City. His positional sense was at times a little shaky (he was maybe in the wrong place during the build-up to Saha’s late consolation), but one suspects that that will come with time as he adjusts to the pace and running of the Premier League.
His performance was similarly strong against Portsmouth in the second match of the season, as he again showed his leaping ability, his tenacity in stepping to attackers and getting stuck in, and his offensive sense, as he provided the final ball on Gallas’ hilarious face-ball set piece score. The misfortune at Old Trafford had little to do with the partnership with Gallas, as the pair bracketed Wayne Rooney out of the game, a chance in the first half and Almunia’s mistake in the second the only real looks in the Englishman had all game. He has slotted right in with Arsenal’s high defensive line, showing the awareness and quickness necessary to play the offside trip to perfection. He has looked especially strong on long balls over the top, rarely failing to head them away to a teammate or thirty yards back from whence they came; this particular strength should prove invaluable against many of the more direct English sides.
Although five games form a small body of evidence, the early returns on the Gallas-Vermaelen pairing are positive. Four goals against in three Premier League games do not paint an accurate picture of the duo’s efficacy, only one coming as the fault of either. Vermaelen’s arrival, which cost the team nothing after Touré’s departure, so far looks to be a clever move on Wenger’s part, and as he becomes more comfortable with Gallas and Almunia, he could prove to be the signing of the season. Plugging the leaks that saw Arsenal surrender points against the likes of Aston Villa and Manchester City last year will go a long way towards bringing some silver back to the Gunners’ case, and Vermaelen, along with an improved midfield barrier of two of Denilson-Song-Diaby, looks to be a big part of a solution to Arsenal’s drought. [digg=http://digg.com/soccer/Another_Wenger_Gem]