Things are going so well for Arsenal right now.
Top of the Barclays Premier League table. Top of Group F in the Champions League Group Stage.
Aaron Ramsey is on fire. Mesut Ozil is on the books. Olivier Giroud is looking like he may score 20+ goals. Heck, Arsene Wenger even looks a bit – dare I say it? – relaxed.
Yet amongst this joy sits a rather perplexing situation, that of Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen, who has hinted that he may seek a move away from the Emirates Stadium if first-team opportunities remain hard to come by.
Speaking on ahead of Belgium’s clash with Wales on Tuesday, Vermaelen told the Daily Mail he may leave Arsenal. “I’ll have to think about that when it’s necessary. January is still a few months ahead. Of course, never playing will not be the ideal situation for me to go to the World Cup, that’s for sure.”
For now, he’s playing it cool. “People ask me if I panic because I’m not playing a lot but I’m not. I have spoken to the manager but it will remain private between us. Things can happen in a split second and change my situation. That can happen tomorrow or next weekend. . . . In that case, we will speak differently in January. I have to be ready for that.”
Vermaelen’s words won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s paid attention to his career of late.
Arriving in North London in 2009, Vermaelen needed little time to settle in scoring an incredible seven league goals in 33 matches while leading the Gunners to a third place finish. After an achilles injury shortened his sophomore season, the center-back returned in 2011-12 to impress once again, scoring six goals in 29 matches to help Arsenal finish third.
When Robin van Persie bounced to Old Trafford in the summer of 2012, Arsene Wenger handed Vermaelen the captain’s armband. It was deserved and expected. What wasn’t expected was the turn in form that Vermaelen’s play would take, consistently putting in dreadful appearances, most notably against Liverpool and Manchester City.
His trademark runs up the pitch no longer proved effective, and worse, left Arsenal exposed in the back. His ineffectiveness was (in part) due to continued achilles trouble but moreso to poor decision making.
One almost felt like Vermaelen’s overzealous play was a reaction to the armband, as if he felt the need to do more to prove himself. Unfortunately, his poor performances left Wenger with no decision but to bench the Belgian. It had to be done and it proved the right decision as Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed a formidable defensive partnership that conceded the second fewest league goals in 2012-13.
This season Koscielny and Mertesacker have continued their outstanding form, leaving Vermaelen with only 10 minutes of Premier League time to his name. With the World Cup fast approaching and stiff competition in Belgium’s starting lineup – Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Daniel van Buyten – Vermaelen needs to prove himself, and fast.
But where will the opportunities come from? Even when Mertesacker was absent against Sunderland Wenger chose to start Bacary Sagna as a center-back and Carl Jenkinson as a right-back instead of utilizing Vermaelen.
So will Arsenal sell the Belgian this January?
Do so and they’ll need to find cover. As a team with a notable injury history and long-shot hopes of making a Premier League title run (while also competing in the Champions League), Arsenal require depth. But Wenger is a conservative business man and a slow mover when it comes to the transfer market. Expecting him to take a loss on Vermaelen and also find a player he believes in enough to purchase could be asking a lot.
Failing to sell Vermaelen, however, could be a big mistake. As Wenger is well aware, having your captain buried on your bench does a club no favors. Plus, the last thing the Frenchman will want is a disgruntled player who could potentially disturb an otherwise promising season.
Decisions will need to be made.