Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday August 9 2012
Having focussed on the challenges that await Lukas Podolski this season, we now bring our attention to established Arsenal players. The next player for whom this represents something of a make or break season finds himself at a crossroads with regards to the esteem in which he is held. Opinion has vacillated significantly in his three seasons at the club.
Having the looks of a serial killer in a time when Arsenal were considered a soft touch had a big effect I think upon his signings. Scoring a few goals will always get you noticed to boot. So Thomas Vermaelen had a pleasant acclimatisation to life at Arsenal. Then he got injured. For a whole season. Little does more to inflate a player`s reputation than a long term injury. For instance, I recall Abou Diaby being a very talented, but incredibly frustrating midfielder with great feet but little sign of a brain. This summer, he appears to have turned into Franz Beckenbauer in the minds of some.
So it was with Vermaelen. Absence made our hearts grow fonder for the impossibly lagoon eyed Belgian. With the exit of Cesc Fabregas, last summer saw him made vice captain and the supposed panacea to our defensive problems had come to save us again. (Much the same as Wilshere and Diaby will apparently turn us into Barcelona this year). But reviews as to Vermaelen`s performances last year have been mixed. His forays forward, which once turned our hearts to putty, now have us questioning the sorts of gaps he`s leaving behind him. Add into the mix that Laurent Koscielny performed so well last season and now he is the keeper of our malleable flame.
Football supporters are every bit as shallow as pre teen girls appraising boy band members nowadays. There always has to be favourites. This usually involves endless comparing, which ultimately leads to one side being pitted against another. How often have you seen someone appraise the Olympics this summer by making a favourable comparison against footballers? It`s not enough to simply enjoy the qualities of both for what they are. One has to be on a pedestal. So Koscielny`s newfound popularity means our quota of affection is being allocated elsewhere, there has to be an equal and opposite amount of mistrust allotted somewhere else.
Vermaelen does have a tendency to plunder forward and get caught. But in a team with a greater collective defensive responsibility, this isn`t a problem. Somebody simply slots back into his place and Vermaelen busts his balls to get back in the event of a break. But the point is, not enough Arsenal players show enough determination to win the ball back, which exposes Vermaelen. It`s not to apportion individual blame; it`s an attitudinal and therefore collective problem. But there is an intriguing sideline in the mix here. Vermaelen is currently vice captain and, it`s more likely than not that come the first game of the season, he will be club captain.
Thomas` biggest challenge is to communicate better. When he gets the itch to plough forward, he needs to be sure that he`s yelling at his teammates to cover for him. Threaten them with physical violence if necessary. It needs to become second nature for players to fill in defensively when it`s required, that will only happen through training ground duress and use of the voice box. Twin deployment of these devices will eventually see it become an instinctive, reflex action. As it stands, Arteta is probably the only player in the team that assumes that responsibility naturally. (Benayoun did it too).
Assuming Vermaelen is appointed captain; that puts a huge onus on him. It means his starting place is guaranteed and with Koscielny and Mertesacker competing for one spot, he has to prove he is worthy. One of the ways he can increase his skill set to make himself suitably indispensible is to turn himself into a bona fide leader and an organiser. Mertesacker has his critics, but one of the best qualities he brings to the defence is a sense of organisation and positional sense. These may be Vermaelen`s biggest weaknesses. There again, Vermaelen is quick, wiry and aggressive, which you could equally say reflect Mertesacker`s achilles heels.
Though not his primary job, it`s easy to forget that Thomas` forays into the opposition area have brought rich rewards. His timing is incredibly good for a defender. It`s just a case of fine tuning that judgement and ensuring colleagues fill in for him. If he`s to be the captain, his overall team responsibility will increase anyway and that will provide him with ample opportunity to exercise those skills. There`s no doubt he is a fine defender. He shows leadership qualities, he`s firm but fair, good in the air and clean in the tackle and distributes the ball well. This season will decide whether he is a good defender with a habit of going walkies, or a beast of a centre half with a penchant for goals. I suspect simply being a beast of a centre half should be the priority and maybe a past no. 5 new to the first team coaching staff can wield some influence there. LD.
Date:Thursday August 9 2012
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