I was listening to Five Live the other day when Bob Wilson started talking about Arsenal’s defensive situation. When I woke up he said something that that startled me. “Thomas Vermaelen could play at left back,” he said discussing our options, “or indeed central midfield”. 'Midfield?' I thought. 'Bob, you’ve lost your marbles.' The Gunners have enough problems at the back with him so why on earth would you take Arsenal’s best central defender and play him out of position? After all, a player like Vermaelen doesn’t reach his point in his career and then get moved about – his success has been due to the fact that he excels at the back. You don’t mess with that. But the seed was sown in my head and a week later I still couldn’t get rid of the idea of the Belgian in the middle of the park. I kept on going back to it and the more I did the more sense it made. You probably think I’m nuts but it’s worked before with Emmanuel Petit so why couldn’t it work again?
Having captained Monaco to the League 1 title, a 27-year-old Petit was brought to Arsenal for £2.5 million. A left-back or centre back by trade until Wenger converted him into a defensive midfielder. Together he and Vieira were titans in the middle of park for Arsenal as the Gunners marched to the double in 1998. He combined astute defensive positioning, tigerish tackling and a sweet left foot which he used time and again to play in Marc Overmars with a delicate chip. He was also a leader – someone who younger players could look to for inspiration and fight when the chips were down. As Arsenal face up to the fact that this season their captain and best midfielder will almost inevitably become a Barcelona player, it’s time for a change at the Emirates.
With his no nonsense black boots, socks rolled up high and shirt tucked neatly in, Vermaelen has the air of a player from a different era.
Vermaelen is by trade a left or centre back and at 25 years old is two years younger than Petit when he was converted. Like the Frenchman he has all the right qualities to dictate the game, martial the team and help Wenger win the silverware that has now eluded him for an embarrassing seven years.
Anyone who has ever witnessed the Belgian on the pitch will know that that he has the leadership qualities that Arsenal lack. With his no nonsense black boots, socks rolled up high and shirt tucked neatly in, he has the air of a player from a different era. None of that Baby Bentley driving, Twitter abusing, contract shirking nonsense that so many modern players are guilty of. Instead this 25 year old appears to be a responsible adult who is keen not to let the fans or his teammates down.
As well as having the right demeanour, Vermaelen has the technique. No old school stopper, he is mobile, can pick a pass and has a fantastic left foot shot. Put him closer to the goal and he can really contribute to Arsenal’s tally. In his first season for the Gunners he scored eight times with his head and also thanks to some fantastic howitzers. As any pub bore will tell you, “the problem with Arsenal is that they try to walk it in” – not Thomas. He lashes them in from distance – like this screamer against Blackburn. If opposition defenders knew this threat was galloping in from midfield it would help create space for the tricky inside forwards that Wenger seems to grow in test tubes every summer.
There is also another good reason why Vermaelen’s move to midfield could help fix Arsenal and that’s tactically. We never did win anything with Fabregas in midfield and I can't help wonder why. It's not Cesc’s fault; he’s been our best player for years and always did his best but when you put such a creative player in the centre of midfield, the team loses a little of its bite.
In 1997/98 Petit and Vieira were defensive midfielders who could also play and their physical presence meant the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars and Anelka could attack knowing those two colossuses were behind them if they lost the ball. When Fabregas took over from Vieira, Arsenal lost half of that insurance policy. Gilberto and Flamini and most recently Song have had to do all that work on their own and unsurprisingly in that period Arsenal have come to be known as a soft touch. Admittedly Wenger tried to fix this by adapting his formation to suit Fabregas from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 but still trophies have eluded him. Points dropped away against Blackburn and Bolton have consistently dogged the Gunners. But it’s not just these lesser teams that have enjoyed bullying Arsenal – Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United all know that a bit of rough stuff can shake our resolve. Who knows, if you stick Van Damme lookalike Vermaelen alongside Song in midfield perhaps the cloggers would enjoy themselves a little less against us.
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