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Jul 21, 2014

Time to move Vermaelen on?

Thomas Vermaelen has been linked with a move away from Arsenal, and Manchester United is said to be keen on the Belgian.

When you consider the centre-half situation at Arsenal, it was telling to hear manager Arsene Wenger say he couldn't guarantee that Thomas Vermaelen would be staying with the club for the forthcoming season.

The Belgian is the club captain -- at least in name -- and one of only three senior central defenders at the club. Not only that, but Per Mertesacker, who was given an extended break due to Germany's World Cup campaign, won't return until the beginning of August. At that point he only begins his preseason preparation, and it might be some weeks before he's properly available for selection.

So you'd think that would leave the door to the first team open to Vermaelen, as just he and Laurent Koscielny provide Wenger's defensive options. Instead, pressed on the future of the former Ajax man, Wenger said: "I cannot guarantee he'll stay, but should he go, I will bring another centre-back in for sure."

Having fallen out of favour in March 2013 after a prolonged period of indifferent form, it's very likely that the player and manager came to an arrangement at the end of last season. His position as captain meant he went to lift the FA Cup back in May, but it must have felt bittersweet. He didn't play in the final, and one of the iconic images of the postmatch celebrations was of Mertesacker and Koscielny, like an old married couple, celebrating the triumph together.

Those two have formed the best central defensive partnership Arsenal have had in years. Vermaelen knows that as long as they remain fit, he's consigned to life on the bench, and I believe that his desire is to leave to play regular first-team football elsewhere. Wenger is a decent man and has often allowed players to go when they're not getting what they want on the pitch at Arsenal. That's true of this situation.

Yet there are other factors too. Just 12 months are left on Vermaelen's contract, so it's an opportunity to get a decent transfer fee for a man whose reputation, while slightly battered, isn't beyond repair. Beyond that, and perhaps the most important consideration, Vermaelen has never quite fulfilled the promise he showed following his move from Ajax back in 2009.

He hit the Arsenal scene with something of a bang, bringing a real energy and toughness to the centre-half position. In one of his early appearances -- a Champions League qualifier against Celtic -- he sprinted the length of the pitch to get back to prevent a dangerous Celtic counterattack, pulling off a goal-saving block in the Arsenal area. That endeared him immediately to fans, as did the glut of goals he scored that season.

Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have formed a formidable partnership at the back for Arsenal.

In Vermaelen's first campaign, he scored a remarkable eight goals, quite a haul for a centre-half, but perhaps those goals allowed people to forgive him the defensive flaws in his game. His desire to win the ball high up the pitch was great when it worked, but when he didn't get there in time he left his team exposed. It was a flaw in his game that he was never able to fully correct.

Sidelined for a long time through a succession of injuries including Achilles' tendon problems, he took over as captain when Cesc Fabregas left but the armband often felt like a shield, protecting him as he struggled with form. It's difficult to bench your captain, but after three-quarters of a season and on the back of a terrible display against Spurs at White Hart Lane, Wenger did just that. He installed Koscielny and Mertesacker alongside each other, and it was long overdue.

The solidity of that partnership was the platform for a genuine -- if ultimately unsuccessful -- title challenge last season and the FA Cup triumph at Wembley in May. Koscielny's game is similar to Vermaelen's in that he likes to win the ball early, knowing Mertesacker is there to mop up behind, but the Frenchman is much more effective at it. And while the German and Koscielny work well together, the Franco-Belgian deployment has never really showed the same level of compatibility.

As it stands, only injury and suspension open the door to first-team football for Vermaelen, and he knows it. To his credit, he's been the ultimate professional about his situation -- it can't be easy to write his programme notes, to know he won't start the big games, to have been essentially emasculated from a football point of view.

The parting, if it happens, should be amicable on all sides. He was handed a position of great responsibility at Arsenal but unfortunately was found wanting. That's football. There won't be bitterness from fans, nor from the player, but there's the feeling that Arsenal need to do better.

They require at least one central defender this summer, but it ought to be one who can compete properly with Koscielny and Mertesacker, and one who can complement both of them in a way that Vermaelen hasn't. Now it's down to Wenger to find that player and bring him in, at which point he can sanction the sale of his captain -- something he's got a lot of practice with in recent seasons.