But strange things happen in football and the Belgian’s performances at centre-back so far this season have left much to be desired. He’s been clumsy with his challenges, giving away a number of costly free-kicks and a penalty, and making sloppy mistakes. His positioning has been inconsistent, and his aerial dominance seems to have subsided as well.
However, filling in at left-back for the injured Kieran Gibbs and preferred now to the hopeless Andre Santos who can’t really be called a defender, he’s put in some half-decent, decent, and admirable performances.
He looked uncomfortable as a full-back when Wenger first utilized him there this season against Schalke – a game they lead 2-0 only to draw 2-2 thanks to some questionable defending in the second half.
He looked marginally less uncomfortable against Fulham at home when again Arsenal conceded three goals, two of which were completely avoidable. They drew that game 3-3 after clinching an equalizer in the second half.
Vermaelen’s report card still would have read, “must try harder” which he did when he played there against Tottenham. Spurs looked likely to cause the Arsenal defence a number of problems with their pacey wide players but Sagna dealt well with Gareth Bale for most of the game and, credit where it’s due, Vermaelen ensured Aaron Lennon had a quiet afternoon.
Wednesday night’s 2-0 win over Montpellier was his best yet – not only was he solid in his own half, his attacking play was intelligent, decisive, and penetrative. He linked up well with Podolski on the flank, overlapping and dragging the defender with him, creating space and opportunity in abundance for Lukas Podolski who, with Vermaelen’s industry and diligence behind him, scored one goal, and had two more shots on target, and two shots pulled just wide of the goal.
Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos are Arsenal’s recognized left-backs but the former is injured and unfortunately ‘injury-prone’. Gibbs is a good full-back – his tackle against West Brom last season to deny Billy Jones a shot on goal was the difference between Champion’s League football and Europa League football for Arsenal this season. His constant injuries though, like Diaby, are becoming a real irritation to the Arsenal faithful, and no doubt his manager too.
Santos, shirt-swapping faux pas aside, is not really a defender – he’s a very attacking wing-back or, as Wenger now opts to play him, a winger.
Vermaelen served as captain for Dutch champions Ajax in 2008/09 before he switched to the Gunners and he played majority of that season as a left-back. He has also performed convincingly there for the Belgian national side.
Thomas Vermaelen was Arsenal’s best centre-back and now he might just be their best left-back.