With Manchester United losing arguably their greatest-ever centre-back pairing in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic this summer, newly appointed boss Louis van Gaal faces the difficult task of replacing them—but it’s questionable that Thomas Vermaelen is the right player to target.
According to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Vermaelen has agreed a deal with United and the only stumbling block now is for both clubs to agree on a fee after the World Cup.
A fully fit Vermaelen would be ideal. He is technically adept and capable of starting attacks from deep inside his own half. That is the attraction for van Gaal, even though he has played very little football in the last 12 months.
As it is, United would be taking a huge gamble if they signed Vermaelen.
The Belgian featured in just 14 of Arsenal’s Premier League games last season, playing 16 times throughout the campaign. Eight of those appearances came from the bench, and he averaged just one tackle per game when he did play.
That hardly fits the profile of the defender that United need right now.
The worst-case scenario is that Vermaelen joins United only to suffer more injuries, playing in sporadic bursts of half a dozen games at a time. United desperately need continuity at the back, and Vermaelen probably can’t provide that.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, in particular, all have their own injury woes, so United would be risking a great deal by signing Vermaelen.
Injuries are a part of football, affecting every single player in one way or another, but Vermaelen has suffered 10 separate injuries in the last 18 months, per PhysioRoom.com. The stop-start nature of his recent career suggests that he will always struggle to stay fit.
At 28 years old, it’s no coincidence.
Since joining from Ajax in 2009, Vermaelen has played just 110 of Arsenal’s 190 Premier League games. That's 58 percent. The 80 games he’s not played in means he’s missed over two full seasons of Premier League football in the five years he’s been in England.
In the same period, however, Ferdinand played 55 percent of United’s games and Vidic featured in 57 percent. The crucial difference is that both of those players are over 30, whereas Vermaelen’s injury problems started in his mid-20s.
In context, Vermaelen is a more injury-prone player than Ferdinand and Vidic.
It wouldn’t make sense for United to make a move for him based on that. The transfer fee itself won’t be sky-high, but it would be wiser to invest a little more money on a dependable, more consistent centre-back.
Chelsea have John Terry and Manchester City have Vincent Kompany—players who can inspire both on and off the pitch. Now that United have lost the experience and know-how of Ferdinand and Vidic in the dressing room, they must look to sign a defensive lynchpin.
All things considered, Vermaelen is not that man.
He cannot be seen as a direct or indirect replacement for two of the Premier League’s all-time great centre-backs.
Yet van Gaal must be confident that Vermaelen can rediscover the form that saw him become such a hit with Arsenal fans when he first signed.
A marauding, goalscoring centre-back with a fierce shot, Vermaelen would be perfect in van Gaal’s preferred 4-3-3 system, which involves one defender bringing the ball into midfield to initiate attacks. His ability to perform that role of a ball-playing centre-back is not in question.
Vermaelen would also be able to play in a 5-3-2 if van Gaal chooses to replicate the formation that has worked so well for the Netherlands at the World Cup.
His technical ability means that he can easily switch between systems, or even move to left-back, and that’s surely part of the attraction for van Gaal.
He would be a superb acquisition on a free transfer—but to pay him in the region of £100,000 a week, per Law’s article, seems like a misuse of funds.
Has Vermaelen earned that wage with his performances in the last year or so? Would United not be better off using the Vermaelen money to invest in a younger, better centre-back?
They are questions that United fans will be asking if the deal goes through. They are questions that United fans will be asking if Vermaelen signs and things go wrong.
Taking risks is a necessity in football, whether it’s making an in-game tactical switch or signing a relatively unknown player who goes on to be a success (Vidic and Patrice Evra are case in point).
With Vermaelen, however, it seems like the cons outweigh the pros—considerably.
Even van Gaal’s record of getting the very, very best out of players cannot be reason enough to sign an injury-prone player who was not first choice for Arsenal last season.
If United do complete the signing, expect it to go one of two ways: Vermaelen will either be a hit at Old Trafford and prove to be a shrewd signing for van Gaal, or his misery with injuries will continue and he’ll end up a bit-part player.
There’s likely to be no middle ground.
All stats via WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.