The captain has fallen from grace and certainly slid down the pecking order at Arsenal after being dropped following the North London derby defeat to Tottenham last season.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have replaced the Belgian as the first choice centre back pairing for manager Arsene Wenger but given the fixture schedule the Gunners face heading into November, the captain got his opportunity in midweek.
The captain was operating a pass completion rate of 83.7 per cent across the game – he misplaced a total of 6 attempted passes, four in his own half, one in the oppositions half and one in Chelsea’s penalty area. Two out of the misplaced 6 were attempted long passes.
Defensively, Vermaelen was successful in just one tackle all game but he did make 8 clearances successfully, made two ball recoveries, despite the fact he made not a single interception or a single block over 90 minutes. He won two fouls and gave away three.
The first goal you could say was an unfortunate and costly error from a 21-year-old Carl Jenkinson that gifted the Blues the lead but Vermaelen is nowhere to be seen - from a corner, he was slow getting back to cover after he was actually attempting a flick on at the near post which was ineffectual and cleared by Samuel Eto’o.
He was clearly tasked with marking Eto’o all game and, even though Eto’o’s accidental long ball into Cesar Azpilicueta was what caught Jenkinson off-guard, where is Vermaelen ensuring Eto’o doesn’t get that that deflected pass in?
As Arsenal searched for an equalizer at 1-0 down, Vermaelen pushed on and made forward runs high up the pitch on two or three occasions but never really contributed effectively, left his position open for a teammate to cover and made his team vulnerable to a counter attack when they lost possession.
We’ve seen him do that well in the past and it can give urgency, energy and an element of surprise to Arsenal in attack but, more often than not, it’s a liability the Gunners can do without.
His anticipation of danger was fairly good – he was quick to spot it and fast out of the traps to close down, get his foot in first both on the ground and in especially in the air but, as we’ve seen before when he and Koscielny play together without Mertesacker, they both have the tendency to rush out to close down and sometimes neither one of them knows who is coming and who is staying.
It’s hazardous and whilst it generally went unpunished on Tuesday night, it suggests Vermaelen has not really learned, changed or adapted his style of defending to accommodate the Frenchman.
It also implies that he has still yet to learn from past mistakes that have seen him sent off or had penalties and fouls given against him. It’s still quite worrying that he is not curbing his enthusiasm to go in hard and even rash in those challenges.
Considering the 27-year-old wears the captain’s armband, it’s still telling that he’s not really talking and organizing – you wouldn’t know he was the captain in that team other than in name. He still does not communicate well enough for me, especially with a youngster like Carl Jenkinson and a relatively new player in Nacho Monreal either side of him.
He does not use his influence or leadership capabilities to lift his team’s spirits at 1-0 or 2-0 down and that is the primary jurisdiction of a club captain. Arsenal need more than that, they need a figure who is going to take a game by the scruff of the neck, lead by example and keep their heads up. Vermaelen does no such thing.
For the second goal that basically put the tie to bed for the Blues, Vermaelen was fairly pedestrian – Samuel Eto’o receives the ball just inside the penalty area on the byline and Vermaelen guides him wide but, crucially, allows him to head the ball to Juan Mata who is left completely unmarked on the edge of the area.
Both Koscielny and Monreal realize the danger and rush out to block the shot about to come in but Vermaelen remains on the byline, he’s actually walking past the six-yard box as the shot comes in, doing nothing whatsoever to try to block it, or even to go and think about covering a rebound even if Szczesny saves it. He just watches it go in.
Incidentally, Mata is not the only unmarked Blues man in the vicinity – Willian is free too inside the penalty area and Ramires is just arriving behind Mata to support as he strikes the ball – Vermaelen’s got Eto’o vaguely covered but why is he not screaming at someone – anyone – to pick up the three spare and unmarked Chelsea midfielders attacking Arsenal’s goal?
You could argue that he's only played 11 minutes of Premier League football this season as well as two League Cup appearances but, at this rate, he's not going to get much more than that and, in a World Cup year especially, that's very bad news for Thomas Vermaelen.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald