In the modern era of football, newspaper rumours linking an Arsenal player to Barcelona are not exactly alien. Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas have both recently been plucked from the regression of the Emirates while Robin Van Persie and Samir Nasri were both linked with making the move to eastern Spain before they headed to Manchester. It’s inevitable, as the season snakes towards the summer and its transfer window, that the rumour mill will churn out another Arsenal to Barcelona story.
This year is no disappointment as the Catalan club, with their air of invincibility wavering and their halo of footballing sacrosanct slipping, have chosen to act on a porous defence and the dying embers of 34 year old captain Carlos Puyol’s career by perusing the market for a couple of centre-backs. One of those is Liverpool’s Daniel Agger and the other, the lucky candidate to be at the centre of the annual Arsenal to Barcelona narrative, is Thomas Vermaelen.
“Halt!” I hear you all call. You can just about make out “Vermaelen!?” from the confused gasp that echoes around the room, a reaction that conveys the dismay that Barcelona would be targeting the Belgian centre-half as they look to desperately cling on to their crown as Europe’s all-conquering behemoth. The footballing equivalent of Ferrari using the clutch from an old Ford Escort as it attempts to wrestle back the Formula 1 Championship.
Those with a vivid memory will urge a refusal to be so hard on the centre-half who immediately adapted into the English game by being named in the PFA team of the year in his debut season with Arsenal. Fans embraced him, affectionately calling him “the Verminator”, a nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cult-hero robot of the mid-90s such was his unforgiving in the tackle and his unwilling intent to win back the ball from his opponent like he’d been programmed to do so.
Now the errors flow, the focus waivers and the positional sense seems to be non-existent as he gets caught between the importance on maintaining defensive discipline and the need to go forward.
Injuries curtailed his next season where he made just 5 appearances and despite a flirtation with injury last season, he still managed a solid campaign in which he showed signs that his partnership at the back with Laurent Koscielny could blossom into a prominent one. Then, after being named captain in the summer following Van Persie’s departure, Vermaelen underwent a stunning loss of form to the extent that Barca’s interest is now met with the utmost bewilderment and disbelief.
The armband must be serving as the 27 year old’s saving grace as he continues to survive in a defence that has kept just 2 clean sheets since Christmas as they continue to stumble in the race for the all-important top four positions. The game against Spurs last Sunday was his 38th of the season but Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been acknowledged by Wenger as the club’s first choice centre-back pairing.
Therefore, the Belgian has been shifted out to left-back, where he was so devastatingly schooled by Mario Mandzukic and Phillip Lahm in the recent tie with Bayern Munich. That was the latest on a charge sheet of a torrid season that has ravaged Vermaelen’s confidence; an awful display at Old Trafford against Manchester United, an alleged rollicking by Wenger for his role in the 0-2 home defeat to Swansea and, despite netting the last minute equaliser against Bradford in the Capital One Cup, his decisive missed penalty in the shootout. Bradford will also conjure memories of him being given the runaround by James Hanson.
Being asked to move from centre-back to left-back as Wenger searched for an answer to Kieron Gibbs’s injury could not have helped, nor could the lack of an embedded back four. Carl Jenkinson, Bacary Sagna, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Andre Santos, Nacho Monreal and Koscielny have all appeared this season as Wenger continues to juggle his options in search of a winning formula. This has been in contrast to the trio of Sagna, William Gallas and Gael Clichy which Vermaelen found himself playing alongside in his promising first year in England.
Whatever the explanation for the sharp decline of form that has rendered the Belgian a shadow of the uncompromising force Wenger bought to the Premier League in 2009, it is a difficult conundrum. Perhaps it is the lack of set position or set team-mates, perhaps it is the added responsibility of the captaincy, perhaps it is the problematic Achilles injury that has dogged him since 2010. Perhaps it is an amalgam of all of those influences tying in with the total evaporation of confidence in troubled times at the Emirates?
Over in Spain, any mention of Vermaelen’s torrid form hasn’t seemed to register on the radar of the Nou Camp’s hierarchy who, if the rumours are to believed, have identified the Belgian as a ball-playing defender talented enough to solve their growing crisis. Maybe Arsenal wouldn’t be too dissatisfied to lose the defender but if Barcelona can rediscover the qualities that made him such a revelation in his inaugural year, then they will have made a very astute purchase.
As it is, it remains a twist on a very modern transfer story. Barcelona want an Arsenal player, but in this case it could be one that Wenger would be happy to see taken off his hands.
If he can rediscover the ability he has previously proved he possesses however, it could be another Islington-Iberian transfer that makes perfect sense.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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