Vermaelen back training - Should he be rushed back to cover Mertesacker?

Vermaelen High Ball

Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen is back in training and could be included in the squad to face Sunderland this weekend and Marseille next Wednesday.

According to the club’s official website, the 27-year-old Gunners centre-back is ‘very close to being available’ and possibly might travel to the Stadium of Light on Saturday with the first-team squad.

The timing could be perfect, after the news Per Mertesacker has been ruled out of the game with injury.

The skipper had a troubled term last season after being dropped by manager Arsene Wenger after a period of poor form in the Premier League and was effectively ousted from his previously undisputed role in the North Londoners’ back line by the formidable pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.

That pair and Vermaelen are Arsenal’s only recognized senior central defenders with fullback Bacary Sagna capable of covering this term. The boss is unlikely to unsettle the partnership of the big German and the junior Frenchman after such a strong performance in the run-in last term, which they seemed to have picked up from where they left off this term (aside from an embarrassing opening day defeat to Aston Villa).

Vermaelen made 29 league appearances for Arsenal last season, of which 23 were for a full 90 minutes but he was dropped for Arsenal’s trip to the Allianz Arena where they beat the eventual Champions League winners Bayern Munich 2-0. He was dropped off the back of a number of poor and inconsistent performances, most notable in Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane to North London rivals Tottenham.

Vermaelen had made mistakes in previous losses at the hands of Manchester City and Chelsea and had been individually at fault for Robin van Persie’s opening goal at Old Trafford against his former club in the Gunners’ 2-1 defeat to the eventual championship winners.

However, putting last season to one side or, perhaps, drawing a line under it – as I’m sure both the captain and the manager will be keen to do – Thomas Vermaelen has been Arsenal’s most consistent, reliable, and solid defender for the last three seasons since his arrival from Ajax in 2009.

He was the captain of the Belgium national side until Vincent Kompany was handed the armband for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and was undoubtedly one of the finest centre-backs in the Premier League.

He seemed to take his eye off the ball last term – literally in some cases – but he had struggled with fitness prior to that – he spent the majority of the 2010/11 campaign out with an achilles injury, suffered on international duty.

With Van Persie’s departure last summer, Vermaelen was handed the armband by Wenger who clearly had faith in him and trusted him to lead the team but, for some reason, his leadership capabilities seemed to completely evaporate last term.

He was one of Arsenal’s few leaders on the pitch along with vice-captain Mikel Arteta and young Jack Wilshere. The Gunners have often been criticized for their lack of leadership, experience and organization and these frustrations seem to have been typified by the skipper’s poor display last season.

Mertesacker and Koscielny are a strong partnership and their qualities are obviously compatible – there have always been concerns over Vermaelen’s pairing with Koscielny who has a similar style of defending to the captain. They are both brash and have the tendency to make rash challenges that cost the team, where the German giant is a much better reader of the game, he’s calmer and gives his partner as sense of organization.

However, neither of those two current first-choice centre-backs is going to play every game this season – there will be periods when either one of them and potentially both are unavailable either through injury or suspension and the captain will certainly have his opportunities to make amends, and this game against Sunderland while soon could just be his chance.

Another crucial factor to his redemption at Arsenal is going to be the World Cup next summer – he now has not just Kompany to contend with but Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen who simply outstanding last season as well as young Toby Alderweireld, and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten who has been selected as vice-captain.

If Vermaelen wants to reassert himself over the Belgian national side’s back line, there is only way he’s going to be able to do it and that is by firstly reasserting himself over Arsenal’s backline which is good news for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans who, I believe, can expect a strong challenge from Vermaelen this season for his place back in the team. This will start with a positive display at winless Sunderland, with the alternative playing Bacary Sagna at centre-back and Carl Jenkinson on the right.

They nickname him The Verminator over at the Emirates and, somewhat appropriately, I guess you could say ‘he’ll be back’. I very much expect Thomas Vermaelen to come through this season as one of Arsenal’s first-choice centre-backs.

image: © ronmacphotos

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