Thomas Vermaelen took over the skipper’s armband this season following the departure of Robin van Persie.
Formerly the Gunners’ most reliable defender, establishing himself as on of the first names on Wenger’s team sheet soon after his arrival from Ajax in 2009, the 27-year-old Belgian was dropped by the boss initially for Arsenal’s trip to the Allianz Arena where they recorded a 2-0 victory over Champions League finalists Bayern Munich.
The central defensive partnership in that game Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker subsequently kept their starting roles in the team and went on to keep 5 clean sheets as Wenger’s side finished out the Premier League season unbeaten in all but one of their final 16 league games.
As a unit the pair have been the most consistent defensive partnership of 2013 in the Premier League and are the main reason why the Gunners snatch the fourth Champions League place from North London rivals Tottenham once again this term.
The captain’s last start was in early April when he returned to the team sheet briefly only to replace the suspended Mertesacker who returned to the team after serving his one-match ban. Vermaelen spent a subsequent six fixtures on the bench.
In previous seasons, Vermaelen was undoubtedly Wenger’s main man in the backline – he was solid, aerially aggressive, physically imposing and read the game well but this term he’s lacked focus, commitment, intelligence in his challenges and has made a number of individual errors that cost the North Londoners points in the first half of the season.
His error at Old Trafford allowing former skipper Van Persie to score against his old club after just two minutes typifies the kind of lackluster displays he’s been prone to.
Should he keep the armband is the question? Well, it’s little use having your captain on the bench and, bar any injuries to the Koscielny or Mertesacker it’s hard to see a reason why Wenger would meddle with the partnership that’s seen them through the most efficient period in their season.
In Vermaelen’s absence, Mikel Arteta has taken on more responsibility and, after the fine season he’s had in his converted role as the holding midfielder of Wenger’s trio, it makes sense that he should be rewarded accordingly. Equally, Arteta is one of the most experienced players in the dressing room.
At 31 years old only Tomas Rosicky and Sebastian Squillacci are his seniors and given the Czech’s perpetually injury woes and the Frenchman’s lack of, well, everything, it’s hard to see a reason why Arteta shouldn’t take the armband off Vermaelen who, in reality, hasn’t convinced even remotely this season that he is a) capable and b) deserving.
The leadership qualities – the commitment, the determination, the work ethic – that Thomas Vermaelen demonstrated in his first three season at the Emirates are surely not completely lost but his ability to be the leader that Arsenal desperately need and lacked for much of the season is in serious doubt.
Wenger may wish to avoid unsettling the squad’s balance and morale by replacing the captain but Vermaelen is going to struggle, on current form and fitness, to win back his place in the team. The boss may prefer to pay it by ear next season but, in the long term, is there any point in having a captain on the bench? How can he steer the ship if he’s not even on it?
image: © Ronnie Macdonald