THE CAMP NOU SIGHED IN UNISON as Samuel Umtiti hobbled off the pitch against Celta Vigo. With Argentine stalwart Javier Mascherano already out injured, the Blaugrana returned to worrying about centre-backs, as has been the trend over the past decade.
As Thomas Vermaelen took to the pitch, the surprise was palpable. The Belgian had been more synonymous with the treatment table since signing in 2014, making only 20-odd appearances for the club during the three years. Even as doubts persisted over his ability to see out the festive schedule, many fans expressed surprise that Vermaelen was still at the club.
Yet this was the same man Barcelona had signed amidst much relief in 2014, on the back of consistent performances for Arsenal. At the time, he was seen to be what Umtiti eventually became, a capable defender giving his club options beyond the established Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano. So how did Thomas Vermaelen fall so far?
Even as Spain and Germany have taken all the plaudits, the rise of Belgium has hardly gone unnoticed among aficionados of European football. Fans of the Premier League have been witness to the exploits of the likes of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku for a fair length of time, while the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois marry proven pedigree to succeed in England.
Such a solid spine, coupled with players such as Dries Mertens elsewhere in Europe, rightfully excite Belgian fans about their prospects whenever an international tournament comes around, with only France possibly matching their squad depth in terms of excitement.
This, however, was not the case through the 1980s and 1990s. Growing up in Antwerp, Vermaelen was in the perfect position to observe two contrasting footballing cultures. On the one hand, Belgium made up the numbers at the World Cup throughout the era, failing to advance past the first knockout stage, while Belgian clubs began to fade away in Europe, making the odd run in tournaments such as the Intertoto Cup.
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Meanwhile, in nearby Amsterdam, the Ajax revolution seemed at its peak. Even as their proverbial high priest Johan Cruyff managed Barcelona, a frighteningly young Ajax side won the Champions League in 1995 and finished as runners-up in 1996. The smooth transition of Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids into the Oranje side for France 98 was testament to an institutionally strong club, playing progressive football for its time.
It was little surprise, then, that Vermaelen opted to sign when Ajax came calling in 2000. After three years with the youth squad, the 18-year-old was handed a debut by Ronald Koeman in February 2004. His performances in the youth side, added to the odd first-team appearance through the 2003/04 season, gave his manager a welcome conundrum.
In developing perfectly along Ajax’s dictum for ball-playing defenders, Vermaelen was admittedly deserving of a place, but it would be difficult to accommodate him in a defence which already included the likes of Maxwell, Julien Escudé and John Heitinga. A loan move to mid-table RKC Waalwijk for the 2004/05 season helped him acclimatise to the Eredivisie, and his performances elevated the club to a surprise ninth-place finish.
On returning to Ajax in 2005, the young Vermaelen gradually cemented his place, playing a crucial role in the club winning the KNVB Cup, even as Ajax finished a disappointing fourth in the league. His distribution skills were for all to see, with Vermaelen contributing three league goals in 24 games, in addition to making his international debut on the back of strong club performances. Koeman repaid these performances by giving the defender five games in that season’s Champions League, as Ajax lost in a closely contested last 16 tie to Roberto Mancini’s Internazionale.
As his partnership with Heitinga cemented over 2006 and 2007, Ajax pushed PSV all the way to their titles, finishing second on goal difference in the 2006/07 season. A rapid turnover of managers, coupled with the surfacing of Koeman at PSV, may have been to blame, but it didn’t diminish interest in Vermaelen or Heitinga, with the latter moving to Atlético Madrid in 2008.
The departure of his senior partner brought out the defensive leader in the 22-year-old Vermaelen, tasked with ensuring the smooth integration of fellow Belgian and academy graduate Jan Verthonghen into the defence, even as Louis van Gaal’s unheralded AZ Alkmaar took the league title. Bearing the captain’s armband through the winter, Vermaelen led Ajax to the round of 16 in the UEFA Cup, where they lost to Marseille.
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Vermaelen’s burgeoning promise, coupled with top-flight experience of close to 150 games, was enough to catch the eye of another club in transition – Arsenal. The prospect of regular Champions League football proved enough to lure Vermaelen to the Emirates for €12 million.
Arsenal post-2006 were in transition, far beyond their move from Highbury to the Emirates. With the gradual disintegration of the Invincibles team, Arsène Wenger sought to build a new defence in his image. A crucial part of were ball-playing defenders to complement the arrival of speedy forwards such as Eduardo and Andrei Arshavin. Vermaelen was signed with a view to forming a partnership with William Gallas.
Vermaelen’s stint at Ajax meant that he had a shorter learning curve to adapt to the Arsenal style compared to subsequent arrivals such as Laurent Koscielny. His positional flexibility also allowed him to cover for Gaël Clichy at left-back when needed, while allowing his natural propensity to go forward and contribute to the attacking phase to blossom completely. This versatility was what set him apart from the other Belgian at Manchester City, Vincent Kompany.
Under the tutelage of experienced Premier League pros in Gallas and Clichy, Vermaelen adapted to English football quickly, enjoying his best season in his first year. As Liverpool slipped to seventh, Arsenal finished third, with Vermaelen scoring seven league goals, including a surprise brace against Wigan and a long-range shot against Blackburn. The year also marked Arsenal’s run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they lost to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Come 2010, the departure of Gallas to city rivals Tottenham would have ideally thrust Vermaelen into the position of leading the defence again, with the arrivals of Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci. However, an Achilles injury, added to another injury later in the season, restricted him to a mere five league appearances, and probably marked the mid-point of his career, with Vermaelen never returning to the level of consistent fitness of old again. Despite the blow, Arsenal would finish fourth, while falling to Barcelona yet again in the Champions League.
Despite Vermaelen maintaining a level of fitness over the next two seasons, regular issues with his Achilles tendon saw new arrival Per Mertesacker eventually nail down the position as Koscielny’s partner. The change was also precipitated by Wenger’s gradual departure from his idealism, turning to the more physical Mertesacker in his bid to eventually take Arsenal deeper into Europe.
Nevertheless, Vermaelen handled his responsibilities with élan, scoring in the league time and again through 2011/12, guiding Arsenal to third place. Arsenal repeated their pattern of underwhelming performances with Vermaelen as captain the next year, but he was gradually phased out for Mertesacker deeper in the season.
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His last season before a move to Barcelona saw Vermaelen play a squad role, in keeping with Wenger’s preference for Mertesacker and Koscielny. It wasn’t an entirely fruitless pursuit, and the Belgian picked up a belatedly deserved trophy to show for his stay, winning the FA Cup, while making the Belgian squad for the 2014 World Cup. He would make one appearance in the group stage before being subbed off due to injury.
Injury issues notwithstanding, Vermaelen’s ability, now proven by performance year in year out at the top, attracted the attention of Luis Enrique at Barcelona.
His move to Barcelona came at a time of great change for the Catalan club. Having dispensed with the underwhelming Gerardo Martino, Barcelona had recalled former B-team coach Luis Enrique to take the reins, and he set about addressing the long-standing defensive gaps in his first season as manager.
Critically, the gap in the heart of the defence had long gone unaddressed, with Barcelona lacking quality backup to the first-choice pairing of Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano. Marc Bartra kept the academy flag flying, stepping in when required, but his poor performance in the Copa del Rey final the previous season underlined the need for reinforcements.
Even though Barcelona had secured the capture of Jérémy Mathieu a few weeks before the Belgian, Vermaelen was seen as a valuable addition due to his international experience and his ability to lead younger defenders in training.
Despite his record with injuries, including issues at the time of his transfer, Barcelona can be forgiven for having persisted with his transfer for two reasons. Firstly, Vermaelen had managed consistent performances through 2011 and 2013, giving the Catalans reason to believe that full fitness was not an impossibility. Secondly, Vermaelen was signed for the purpose of playing a squad role, filling in at centre-back or at left-back for Jordi Alba when required. Given the high standards of fitness Piqué, Mascherano and Alba usually maintained, Vermaelen playing a consistent run of matches was a mere contingency.
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As it turned out, the injuries around his transfer would continue to dog him all season, eventually allowing him to appear only in Barcelona’s final league game of the season. Things looked up in 2015/16, with Vermaelen making 20 appearances in all competitions, while also appearing at Euro 2016 as Belgium fell to Wales in the quarter-finals. However, repeated injury fears, coupled with the signing of Samuel Umtiti from Lyon in 2016, caused Barcelona to loan him to Roma for the season, where he made sporadic appearances.
So what went wrong with Vermaelen, who was one of the most promising ball-playing defenders at the turn of the decade?
While his injuries have been unfortunate, one may argue that they were expected given Vermaelen’s frequent participation in top division football since the age of 18. Years of intense football, within the largely offensive styles of Ajax and Arsenal, took their toll. The result was the loss of Vermaelen’s peak years in the late-20s, with the Belgian dogged by injuries normally endemic to defenders in their 30s.
Another possible argument lies in his time at Arsenal. Vermaelen’s stint coincided with those of Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, two other salient injury-prone cases who spent – or are still spending – a long spell at the Emirates. The frequent occurrence of injuries for the trio, while down to sheer bad luck, could also be an indictment of medical practices at Arsenal, which may need an overhaul to balance European and domestic commitments as the game gets even faster. Wenger’s practices may have been groundbreaking at the turn of the millennium but the game has moved further on, and Arsenal would do well to question if they had a role in the trio’s long spells out.
Lastly, Vermaelen’s unfortunate run of injuries began just as Belgium’s impressive new era began to assert itself. The development of Toby Alderweireld and Verthonghen at Tottenham sounded the proverbial death knell for Vermaelen on the international stage. Even though he continues to appear for Les Diables Rouges, Roberto Martínez seems to have reconciled himself with Vermaelen’s sporadic availability and builds his team accordingly.
Thomas Vermaelen is far from the only promising player dogged by injuries. Examples abound in history, not least that of Vermaelen’s former manager at Ajax, Marco van Basten. What is saddening, and indeed requires remedying, is how his injuries have led many fans to forget the ability he demonstrated at Ajax and Arsenal, bursting out of defence and covering as the last man as well as anyone for two years when fit. Fans in Barcelona will hold out hope that he can still reach those levels when called up to represent the Blaugrana.