Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen has been inconsistent for the Gunners this season at centre-back and with their current injury list, could manager Arsene Wenger consider moving the Belgian into midfield like Rafael Benitez has done with David Luiz at Chelsea?
Vermaelen suffers from a similar set of frailties as Luiz showed in his first season at Stamford Bridge – he has yet to curb his enthusiasm for charging out of defence into midfield and even forward areas of the pitch.
He’s been caught out of position on numerous occasions this season and his tackling in the penalty area has been aggressive, to Arsenal’s detriment. The Gunners have conceded 27 goals in 23 games, many of them needlessly.
Arsene Wenger has had three centre-halfs available pretty much all season and, especially in the early stages, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny seemed to make a more compatible pairing in the middle of the Arsenal back four.
Meanwhile, Wenger sold Alex Song to Barcelona last summer and didn’t see a need to replace him – instead he moved Mikel Arteta in to the holding midfield role, allowing Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla the freedom to get forward.
Whilst Arteta has done a fantastic job in his new position, he’s now injured along with young Francis Coquelin. Wenger still has Emmanuel Frimpong who has returned form loan and the perpetually injured Abou Diaby who, for all intents and purposes is not a defensive midfielder.
Coquelin and Frimpong are young and still relatively inexperienced – I wonder whether in ‘big games’ Vermaelen might be a more appropriate choice. Like Luiz at Chelsea, he’s technically gifted on the ball, (as far as centre-backs go) his passing is decent, he’s fast and his anticipation is strong.
Arsenal’s midfield used to consist of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who were, long before the days of Claude Makelele, defensive midfielders. They had the technical ability to pick out passes going forward but, crucially, they acted as the first line of defence in front of the back four.
Vermaelen has the bravery and anticipation that goes with the territory of a defender but he lacks the concentration required. I’m inclined to suggest that, if Wenger took a leaf out of Benitez’s book and gave the Belgian an opportunity to play there, he could very well be exactly the enforcer the Gunners have been lacking.
Whilst his tackling in the penalty area is sometimes too aggressive, on the outskirts of the box he could break up attacking play and give away free kicks if necessarily without walking the tightrope that bad timing could concede a penalty.
As the captain, he could also affect the attacking play more directly from midfield where, since the departure of Song, Arsenal have struggled to find their charge. Song would lumber out of his deep role with great determination to drive forward and that is something Vermaelen seems equally as keen to do. He also has a superb let foot and can shoot well from distance.
I think Koscielny and Mertesacker could do very well as a partnership, especially if they had the protection of Vermaelan operating in front of them. He could also free Wilshere who, at the moment still has to operate like a box-to-box midfielder, chasing back when Arsenal lose the ball.
Wilshere would likely feel less pressure to get back and make tackles if he knew Vermaelen was there to clean up behind him. That could also free Arsenal’s attacking players to make more incisive final balls in their attacking third, which, this season, they’ve struggled to do.
Currently, they’re shaky about losing possession because they don’t really have the insurance of a genuine defensive midfielder behind them and, subsequently, are more conservative with their passing in and around the box.
Moving Vermaelen into that role wouldn’t work one hundred per cent of the time but in games where Arsenal share the possession more equally with the opposition – like they did with Chelsea and Manchester City – I think he could be very effective in breaking up the play.
When you look at Arsenal's fixture list, they face strong attacking teams in the next month or so in some season-defining games - Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Tottenham, and Everton.
Whether or not they bring someone in to play that role remains to be seen but they cannot afford to continue without giving their back four more protection or they may find themselves out of the Champion's League and out of the race for top four in the league by the end of March.