The Belgian defender aggravated a back problem during the club’s tour of Asia and has missed the first month of Arsenal’s season. However, he returned to the squad for last week’s win at Sunderland, entering the fray as a late substitute to help secure three points.
Manager Arsene Wenger has warmly welcomed Vermaelen’s return. Adding him to a squad that already includes Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny gives Wenger a strength in depth that he compares to when he inherited the trio of Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown in the mid-1990s.
Speaking to Arsenal.com, Wenger said:
Yes, it is a bit like that. The one who didn’t play [the decision] was not justifiable.
In the end we played the three together in some games, but when I moved to a back four we were always in a position where you had to make a choice.
I rotated and at some stage every time I made a decision [about who] was left out, I thought 'it is not right'.
Wenger seems wedded to the idea of back four these days, so one of the international centre-halves will be forced to miss out.
He alluded to the fact that Vermaelen’s left-footedness may make him an automatic pick, leaving the other two to fight it out for a place alongside him. Wenger added:
He is naturally a left-sided player, more than anybody else. His natural position is there and I like to have a central defence where you have a right-footed player and a left-footed player. That is why I always build around Thomas.
For the rest, he has all the attributes of a good centre back because he has the physical qualities and the technical qualities and the experience to read the game.
Then, of course, there is the issue of the armband. Vermaelen remains Arsenal’s club captain, and a skipper is usually guaranteed a start.
However, it is vital to Arsenal’s hopes of a trophy that Wenger resists the temptation to reintroduce Vermaelen.
In his absence, the pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny has flourished into an efficient and effective partnership. They are an ideal couple: Mertesacker’s game is based on intelligent reading of the play and immaculate positioning, whereas Koscielny is a fleet-footed reactionary defender.
Wenger must remember when he first decided to unite Mertesacker and Koscielny. After Vermaelen’s ill-managed offside trap allowed Tottenham in behind to score twice at White Hart Lane, the captain was unceremoniously dropped for the Champions League away leg against Bayern Munich.
Arsenal went on to win the match, keep a clean sheet, and almost knock out the eventual European champions. Wenger told Arsenal.com:
What happened that night is that we were in a position where we were expected to be hammered and everyone predicted a six or seven-nil.
We had nothing to lose, we decided to go for it and realised after the game we were very close to knocking them out.
That night was a turning point for the Gunners. Since then, they have played a further 17 matches, winning 15. They have lost just once: on the opening day against Aston Villa.
Vermaelen became a peripheral figure in the run that saw Arsenal beat Spurs to Champions League qualification. He has since been entirely absent in the Gunners’ impressive start to the season. Without his impetuosity, Arsenal’s defence looks calmer and more secure.
Arsenal’s good form is built partly on increased competition for places. The likes of Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna have responded well to pressure from understudies Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson. To reintroduce Vermaelen now would disrupt that meritocracy.
Rotation is not an option, either. While the attacking parts of a team can often benefit from the injection of fresh legs, defences benefit from consistent selection.
Vermaelen must bide his time. Wenger would be foolish to dislodge either Mertesacker or Koscielny deliberately, but there is a long season ahead. Injuries will undoubtedly take their toll.
Vermaelen will undoubtedly get a chance to start a game in the Capital One Cup tie with West Brom next week. The fact he’s even considered for selection in such a game is indicative of how far he’s fallen.
However, the Belgian must seize the opportunity to show that when called upon he still has something to offer. This could yet be “The Verminator's” greatest battle.