Thomas Vermaelen’s poor positioning keeps costing Arsenal cheap goals

April 9, 2010

There’s little doubt that Thomas Vermalen has been a good signing for Arsenal. Lacking a top-class centre-back last year, Arsene Wenger did brilliantly to dispose of Kolo Toure and bring in the Belgian – and made a profit by doing so.

Vermaelen is extremely popular with the Arsenal fans because he’s the type of player they haven’t signed in recent years – a tall, strong defender who enjoys getting tough tackles in and competing in the air. His early-season goalscoring form made him an instant hit, and he’ll probably win ’signing of the season’ in many pundits’ end-of-season awards.

But in recent weeks Vermalen’s positioning has been suspect. In fact, it’s been more than suspect, it’s been very poor. The most frustrating thing is that he keeps making the same mistake – he comes too far up the pitch to challenge for the ball, and leaves a huge space in the centre of defence  for an opposition forward to exploit.

Example One: Manchester United (home), 31st January:

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The first thing to note is that Vermaelen’s central defensive partner, William Gallas has charged forward to join the attack, and is circled in (1), meaning Vermaelen is the sole centre-back. When the ball breaks to Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield in (2), Wayne Rooney (just out of shot to the right) is beginning a run towards the ball. Despite the fact that Alex Song (circled) is occupying that space, Vermaelen follows Rooney’s run (3) – Rooney is marked in blue, Vermaelen in red. This leaves the entire centre of Arsenal’s defence unmanned, and Park (marked in green) sees this. After Carrick’s through ball, Park has a free run on goal (4) and puts United into a 0-3 lead. Game over.

Vermaelen is attracted to the forward, ball over the top, free run on goal, Arsenal concede.

Example Two: West Ham (home), 20th March

A slightly strange one here, because the player Vermaelen is attracted to is the same one who gets in behind. Vermaelen was perhaps expecting a ball to feet and so gets tight to his man, but the long ball is lofted over the top, where 33-year-old Guillermo Franco outpaces Vermaelen, the Belgian brings him down, concedes a penalty and is sent-off.

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Vermaelen is attracted to the forward, ball over the top, free run on goal, Arsenal concede a penalty.

Example Three: Barcelona (home), 31st March

Granted, Vermalen and Alex Song had never played together in the centre of defence before, so the excuse that they don’t have an understanding is perhaps acceptable. Nevertheless, Vermaelen should have been the one taking charge. In (1) as Xavi has the ball, Arsenal’s defensive line is fine, Vermaelen and Song are holding a good defensive line level with each other. In (2), by the time the ball has been played, Vermaelen has run three or four yards forward to try and pick up Lionel Messi. The ball, however, has been played over the top and Ibrahimovic runs onto the ball.

Vermaelen attracted to the forward, ball over the top, relatively free run on goal, Arsenal concede.

And from the same night:

Criticizing him for the first goal that night is harsh, but it fits the pattern. Vermaelen is too concerned with Messi in front of him, and is completely unaware of Ibrahimovic’s run in behind.

Vermaelen attracted to the forward, ball over the top, free run on goal, Arsenal concede.

Example Four: Barcelona (away), 6th April

Finally, away in the Nou Camp. A long ball from Milito in the defence is played towards Messi (blue) rushing onto the ball. Vermaelen (red) charges forward to try and win the ball in the air (1) but it breaks loose. Messi continues his forward run, Vermaelen is out of position and has to try and turn 180 degrees and make up ten yards on Messi (2).

And so again – Vermaelen attracted to the forward, ball over the top, free run on goal, Arsenal concede.

This isn’t a character assassination on Vermaelen. He’s had a very good season and is unquestionably a top-notch player – and at the age of 24 and in his first season in the Premiership, he is still learning. But he keeps making the same unforgivable error and it is costing Arsenal time and time again – he’s too eager to fly into challenges high up the pitch when he should be keeping his position in the centre of defence.

For a central defender to make such basic positional errors is the equivalent of a striker missing five penalties or a goalkeeper dropping five crosses at an opponent’s feet – and it’s amazing that he’s escaped criticism for it in the mainstream media.

Perhaps he is used to playing alongside more of a sweeper who will cover behind him, or perhaps he is simply following instructions from his manager. But regardless, the tactic is plainly not working, because Arsenal keep conceding goals in the same way.

Edit, 00:28, 10th April:

Since there has been so much discussion in the comments section about the second Ibrahimovic goal, here is the clip:

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