Van Gaal’s Logic: Why are Manchester United targeting Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen?

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Manchester United are reported to have made a move for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, as part of the club’s plans to rebuild the squad ahead of the upcoming season.

United signed Robin van Persie, who was Vermaelen’s predecessor as Arsenal captain, and his goals fired them to the title in 2012/13. Van Persie was arguably the Premier League’s best striker when he left the Gunners, but there would be doubts about the 28-year-old if he was to make the same journey from the Emirates to Old Trafford.

Despite being club captain, Vermaelen has struggled for football since Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny emerged as Arsene Wenger’s first choice defensive partnership in the season before last, and he only started seven Premier League games last year. Arsenal only won two of those seven games.

It’s been quite the fall from grace for the Belgium international, who quickly became a fan favourite at Arsenal with his tough tackling and spectacular goals. His fellow players recognised his ability as well, voting him into the PFA Premier League Team of the Season after his first year in England.

So what’s gone wrong for Vermaelen, and would his form recover with a move to United?

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Compare Vermaelen’s stats from the season just finished with the 2012/13 season, and initially it appears that he improved in some respects. Interceptions is slightly improved, whilst there is a huge increase in the number of clearances. However, when you look at the fixtures where Vermaelen was brought on as a sub, it was generally to defend a lead when Arsenal were under heavy pressure, which skews the figures somewhat. However, the defender did complete 91% of his passes last season.

One of Vermaelen’s strengths is bringing the ball out of defence, which forces the opposition to close him down and creates openings for others. The trouble is that he can be too impetuous, both in an attacking sense and in his defensive work – he’s so eager to charge forward, or to attack the ball, that it leaves space to exploit behind.

This is exacerbated at Arsenal because they don’t tend to play with a traditional defensive midfielder, so the gaps that Vermaelen leaves aren’t plugged by someone dropping in to fill them. It’s not a coincidence that his performances significantly dropped in the season immediately following Alex Song’s departure from Arsenal. In a system that allows him to regularly break forward, he could flourish again.

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Vermaelen heat map vs Everton

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are leaving United this summer, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both somewhat injury prone, which means the club is in dire need of defensive reinforcement if they are to better their dismal 7th-placed showing from last season.

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Looking at Vermaelen’s last two Premier League seasons against the performances of two other defenders linked with United, Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and Feyenoord’s Bruno Martins Indi, the Belgian is comparable, though Mats Hummels was most impressive last year.

Vermaelen only has a year left on his Arsenal contract, and is reportedly available for just £8 million. He does already have significant Premier League experience, and he is able to fill in at left-back, which could count in his favour if it comes down to a straight choice between him and other defenders. He’s also an outstanding professional, as demonstrated by his manner when dropped from the Arsenal side. He didn’t complain or kick up a fuss, there were no leaks about his unhappiness. He just got on with things quietly.

The Belgian is a product of Ajax’s academy, schooled in the Dutch style, which may be another reason why van Gaal is looking at him. The current Netherlands manager will introduce a more fluid style at Old Trafford next year, and Vermaelen would understand the system, and it would play to his strengths. He was once an excellent defender at the Emirates, and at that knockdown price, he’s worth taking a gamble on.

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