Thomas Vermaelen is an indisputable legend of the Belgium national team, putting in 58 appearances for the side since 2006. His versatility in the back four and ability to play as a centre-back or a full-back has always worked in his favour, but after a couple of disappointing seasons since leaving Arsenal, could the 31-year-old soon find his position in the Red Devils’ defence in jeopardy?
Since moving to Barcelona from North London at the end of the 2013-14 season, Vermaelen has struggled to recapture the imperious form he displayed during his tenure of 110 top flight games at the Emirates. As such, the European powerhouses sent the Belgian to Roma on loan for the 2016-17 campaign, deeming him surplus to requirements at the Nou Camp.
Unfortunately, the former Ajax man has only clocked 568 minutes for Luciano Spalletti’s side this term, and will almost certainly return to the Catalan capital in the summer.
The defensive enforcer has been plagued with various injuries for the past few years, which have prevented him from gaining any form or momentum. With Barcelona due to appoint a new manager in the summer, it remains to be seen whether there will be a place for Vermaelen in the squad. The likelihood is that Luis Enrique’s successor will seek to strengthen the back line in the transfer market, rather than opt for a player that has seemed like a square peg in a round hole at Barca.
Vermaelen was a key component in Belgium’s Euro 2016 squad, but with the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in such exceptional form for Tottenham Hotspur, the Lilywhites’ centre-backs are likely to be two of the first names on Roberto Martinez’s team sheets. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season thanks to the defensive rigidity brought by these two, and have only shipped 22 goals after 34 games. As such, Spurs were heavily tipped to keep Arsenal at bay in the recent North London derby, and prevailed with a 2-0 victory.
During the Euros, Marc Wilmots frequently opted to use Alderweireld and Nicolas Lombaerts as his central defensive pairing, with Vertonghen and Vermaelen operating as full-backs. On occasions when Vincent Kompany has been available for selection in the past, though, even Alderweireld has been pushed out into a wider position. Kompany has recently returned to action for Manchester City, and when fit is arguably the strongest defensive option Belgium have. This could put Vermaelen further down the pecking order.
Vermaelen’s ability to play as a full-back is perhaps one of the main reasons he has still managed to make it onto the national team sheet in recent years. If his only role was as a centre-back he would find that there were at least three players ahead of him in on the rungs of the Belgium defensive ladder. Fortunately for the man who made the 2009-2010 Premier League Team of the Year (see video above), Belgium don’t have as many natural full-backs at their disposal. Even so, since Roberto Martinez took over as manager of the Red Devils, the Barcelona man has only made one appearance, in the recent 3-3 draw with Russia.
If Vermaelen can stay free from injury, he should have a few more years left in him at international level. But to reassert himself as a first team regular under Martinez, the stalwart defender must seek a move to a club where he will be afforded more pitch time.
There are certainly plenty of clubs that need a defender of Vermaelen’s prowess and experience, and at 31 years old, he may not be too costly to acquire. Undoubtedly, his best years were in England’s top division, and defensively weak teams like Manchester City and Liverpool may seek to sign the player if the price is right. The only problem is, with those sides he may not get the regular action he desperately needs.
Perhaps the best move for Vermaelen would be to spend his last few years as a regular in an up-and-coming side like Bournemouth or Watford, where his leadership qualities and expertise would be invaluable. If he can refresh his career and help a side like that rise up the table, he could force Martinez to reassess his options when selecting the Belgium starting XI.