Another Wenger Gem

Vermaelen and van Persie

Ted Harwood is a new guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He lives in Chicago, IL, and has been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of a decade.  He writes about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts on his blog, Running Downhill.

Thomas Vermaelen, age 23, was born in Kapellen, Belgium, a town roughly ten miles north of Antwerp.  His career began at the Belgian club Germinal Beerschot Antwerpen, but the shy youth’s talent meant that he would not remain for long, especially after GBA began a partnership with Ajax in 1999.  Vermaelen moved clubs shortly after the link was established and overcame his shyness to make his Ajax debut at age 18, playing at left-back, and immediately his talent was there for all to see.  After a successful loan spell at RKC Waalwijk, Ajax brought him back and slotted him in next to the iconic Jaap Stam.  Stam predicted great things for the young defender, now playing at center-half as well as left-back.  Possessing great jumping skills, speed, and tenacity (on display as he bulldogged Robin van Persie during the 2007 Amsterdam Tournament), Vermaelen began to attract the attentions of numerous clubs around Europe, including Aston Villa and Arsenal, although Arsène Wenger, typically, kept his interest well-hidden.

The shortcomings of last year’s Arsenal compared with the other top three teams are apparent to everyone who takes a look at the 2008-09 table.  The Gunners scored as many goals as champions Manchester United, second only to the prolific Liverpool, but conceded thirteen more than both Man U and Chelsea.  Despite Wenger’s insistence that no one position was responsible for this problem, that the team defends as a team, most pundits and many Gooners insisted that the solution laid in a defensive destroyer, and that money should be no obstacle.  Many names were tossed out, some old (Lescott, Mertesacker), some new (Hangeland), but everyone seemed to concur that the ideal newcomer would have to be a beast, showing little regard for human life as he cleared the airspace around the Arsenal goal.  The ideal partner for the back-in-form William Gallas would be six-foot-five, have a vertical leap of something like three feet or more, and have a beard full of spittle and menace, everyone said.

Thomas Vermaelen at EvertonThus the arrival of Vermaelen in June for roughly ÂŁ10m came as a bit of a surprise, and a bit of a letdown for those wanting a giant.  Tony Adams, who had scouted the player for Wenger, told Setanta after the signing that thought “Thomas is a very good player, but I don’t think he’s ready for the Arsenal. I don’t think the punters at Arsenal would like another small one.”  It is perhaps understandable that Adams would expect Wenger to bring someone in more in his legendarily solid mold to partner the mobile Gallas, especially given Arsenal’s perceived troubles defending set-pieces and crosses.  However, those closer to Ajax told a different story.  Ronald de Boer, the former Ajax and Rangers star, said ahead of the first Celtic match, “He didn’t play all that well for Ajax last season but he quite often had to play at left-back, which isn’t his best position, because he is left-footed. But, for me, he has all the skills to go on and be a great defender. He is very strong defensively, but can also play football too which is always useful.”  He compared Vermaelen to his brother Frank and added that Vermaelen is “a bit meaner than my brother, which is not a bad thing at all.”  No, indeed.  Furthermore, he is only 23, and as defenders typically peak in their late 20s, Arsenal have a potential diamond in their hands.

Vermaelen’s performances so far this year support that feeling.  His performance against Celtic at Celtic Park prompted Manuel Almunia to declare that Vermaelen’s confidence on the ball had calmed the Arsenal defense.  Against Everton, his skills were on display for all to see.  He frequently outleapt the much taller Jô and Marouane Fellaini, did well against the skill of Tim Cahill, and he has already displayed a nose for goal on set-pieces, scoring a header for Arsenal’s second goal of the match, although admittedly Everton’s defending was horrifying.  He plays like a more tenacious and physical Kolo Touré, laying to rest any fears Gooners may have about selling the Ivorian to Manchester City.  His positional sense was at times a little shaky (he was maybe in the wrong place during the build-up to Saha’s late consolation), but one suspects that that will come with time as he adjusts to the pace and running of the Premier League.

His performance was similarly strong against Portsmouth in the second match of the season, as he again showed his leaping ability, his tenacityThomas Vermaelen in stepping to attackers and getting stuck in, and his offensive sense, as he provided the final ball on Gallas’ hilarious face-ball set piece score.  The misfortune at Old Trafford had little to do with the partnership with Gallas, as the pair bracketed Wayne Rooney out of the game, a chance in the first half and Almunia’s mistake in the second the only real looks in the Englishman had all game.  He has slotted right in with Arsenal’s high defensive line, showing the awareness and quickness necessary to play the offside trip to perfection.  He has looked especially strong on long balls over the top, rarely failing to head them away to a teammate or thirty yards back from whence they came; this particular strength should prove invaluable against many of the more direct English sides.

Although five games form a small body of evidence, the early returns on the Gallas-Vermaelen pairing are positive.  Four goals against in three Premier League games do not paint an accurate picture of the duo’s efficacy, only one coming as the fault of either.  Vermaelen’s arrival, which cost the team nothing after Touré’s departure, so far looks to be a clever move on Wenger’s part, and as he becomes more comfortable with Gallas and Almunia, he could prove to be the signing of the season.  Plugging the leaks that saw Arsenal surrender points against the likes of Aston Villa and Manchester City last year will go a long way towards bringing some silver back to the Gunners’ case, and Vermaelen, along with an improved midfield barrier of two of Denilson-Song-Diaby, looks to be a big part of a solution to Arsenal’s drought.

Who Needs Foreigners? The Premier League, That’s Who

Wenger and Bergkamp

Let’s be honest about it, and this is why the xenophobia really annoys me, the Premier League is what it is because of foreigners. And not just on the pitch, but off of it as well. Before foreigners began coming to play in England in the mid-to-late 90s and practically took over in the early to middle part of this decade, England could only look on Italy and Spain and, at times, Germany with envy.

By 2002-03, England had only ever had a side reach the semifinals three times, all Manchester United. Since the final stage of foreign “invasion,” England have “produced” 13 of the 24 semifinalists including multiple appearances by each of the big 4. Of course there was the great run by English clubs in the 70s and 80s which saw Liverpool win 4 times and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest twice, including a stretch of five years when only either side won the old European Cup. But that was not the Champions League.

In the modern game, England were not able to compete on the European stage until they opened the league up to foreigners. This season there are 337 foreign players from 66 different countries registered to play in the Premier League. That works out on average to about 17 per side accounting for almost 70% of the entire league. In 1992, there were 11.

The fact of the matter is that England does not produce enough footballers of a consistently high quality to sustain an entire league like Italy and to some extent Spain. Yes, I know Spain has a bunch of foreigners but, with less than 200 foreign players, the majority of players are home-grown. Something that hasn’t been true of the Premier League for years. Let’s look at the numbers (based on the 2006-07 season, after which the numbers will have risen):

Percentage of foreign players in all top 4 teams (and in the league overall):

  • Germany 48% (50%)
  • Spain 48% (38%)
  • Italy 48% (30%)
  • France 34% (34%)
  • ENGLAND 73% (59%)

That is a tremendous difference. England’s overall lack of quality compared to the other major countries is evident in the national team. They are currently struggling to find players for more than one position. England has no world-class striker or keeper. They have also hurt in very recent times for a wide player and a right-back. Spain, on the other hand, is spoiled for riches in regards to depth. The England team, while having a few superstars, is one injury crisis away from being mediocre. This is a direct result of English players not being good enough for their own league. That says something about the quality of the average English footballer. Most of them don’t go abroad to Spain or Italy because they don’t have the technical ability required for those leagues, not to mention an inflated value of self-worth.

Off the pitch, in the director’s box, board room, and dugouts, foreigners have transformed the Premier League into what it is. When was the last time a big 4 club had an English manager? I don’t even remember and can’t be bothered to look it up. The two greatest managers in the modern English game, who have done even more to change this league than the players, are Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, a Scot and a Frenchman. Even the teams closest to breaking into the top 4 last season do not have English managers as O’Neill is Irish and Moyes is Scottish.

But it’s not just about picking a side. Wenger almost single-handedly brought the Premier League into the future with his training and lifestyle management. At the time of Wenger’s transformation of Arsenal, United players were still smoking and eating and drinking like they were dockworkers, not professional athletes. To his credit, Fergie saw the writing on the wall far more quickly than any of the English managers and quickly snapped his team into good enough shape to win the treble in 1999 which included England’s first ever modern-day European champion. Let’s also not forget about the owners. Whether some of us like it or not, owners like Abramovich and the Arabs at City have changed the game as well, for better or worse, bringing more money into the English game and therefore better players and increasing parity.

Nevada's
Nevada Smith’s, NYC

And, finally, there are the fans. The Premier League has far more fans outside of England than they do inside and the same goes for the big clubs. There are far more Arsenal supporters in the USA, on the east coast even, than in London or even all of England. Also, it is only recently that the Premier League has received so much coverage here in the United States. Ten years ago, I used to have to drive almost two hours to New York City and pay $20 to watch Arsenal, if they were broadcast that week. Highlights were available irregularly on a semi-weekly basis. Newspapers were available two days after the fact for 8 times the price. My point is that it was hard to follow the club. Not only do some English supporters take what they have for granted, they also try to deny the title of “supporter” to those outside the UK. What is the difference between an Arsenal supporter from New York and one from Yorkshire?

When I go to watch Arsenal here in New York City, I am watching at a pub that is so packed with singing Gooners (see right) that people are waiting outside on line just for the chance to get in and watch the match. Also, I am not even close to being the only American Arsenal blog. There are a number of them, including 7am kickoff, which are well-written, thoughtful, insightful, and, most of all, their writers are as dedicated to the club as anyone. So the condescending attitude which some English supporters take towards foreign fans is ridiculous, especially towards us American supporters.

Through the years I have talked football, online as a moderator at The Gooner Forum or not, with 100s and 100s of people from six continents and I have found Americans who are very knowledgeable about Arsenal and football in general, while at the same time I have found English fans who had no clue what they were talking about. And far more shirt sales and merchandise money are made by the clubs outside of the little island than inside. Not to mention the many American Arsenal supporters who gladly spend a few thousand dollars just to get to London and watch one match. So, to dismiss foreign fans because their nationality somehow makes it impossible for them to understand the game or love the club, is just another way the xenophobia manifests itself.

All in all, the Premier League has been forged and continues to be absolutely propped up both on the pitch and off by foreigners. English supporters should be grateful, because if all the foreign players and managers picked up their things and left, if all the foreign owners who have spent the money to bring great players to England sold the clubs or even stopped spending money, and if all the foreign supporters stopped watching the Premier League on television and stopped buying the shirts, what would be left? At best, a slightly better version of the Championship.