Vermaelen can play the Barca way
Barcelona have completed the transfer of Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal for a reported fee of 15 million pounds. The Belgium international has agreed to a five-year contract with the Catalan club.
The 28-year-old centre-back is a welcome addition to a club that struggled defensively last season. Landing a player who was trusted to captain the Gunners for the past couple of years can only be interpreted as a positive step in the right direction. Together with the signing of Jeremy Mathieu, it is reassuring to see that the under-pressure board have finally taken action to strengthen the Blaugrana back line.
Vermaelen made 150 appearances for Arsenal in the past five seasons, proving to be a versatile player who can perform both in central defence and as a reliable left-back. Effective in the air despite being only 5-foot-11, the Catalans' new arrival is known for his positioning, well-timed tackling and determined attitude. Being used to playing the ball from the back during his years in North London and Ajax should also help him fit right into Barcelona's footballing philosophy.
Understandably, many Cules are concerned about the numerous knee injuries that Vermaelen suffered last season, which ultimately kept him beneath Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in the Arsenal pecking order. While signing a player who made only 21 appearances last year is obviously far from ideal, his many positive performances until that point prove that once he recovers his full fitness, he will be capable of regularly competing for a starting spot.
Barcelona have invested 35 million euros in reinforcing their central defence through Vermaelen and Mathieu. For such an outlay, it may have been preferable for the club to lure a world-class defender such as Thiago Silva, Mats Hummels or Vincent Kompany instead. However, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta failed to take action in due time and, for whatever reason, that sort of high-calibre defensive player was either unavailable or not interested in what the club had to offer.
Manager Luis Enrique now can choose between the Belgian international, Gerard Pique, Mathieu and an improving Marc Bartra to fill the two positions in Barca's central defence -- an obvious improvement after far too many years having to witness Javier Mascherano struggling to cover a position that just wasn't for him, as his commanding performances as a midfielder for Argentina at the World Cup clearly showed.
Despite the new arrivals, the defensive success of Barcelona in the coming season will once again rest on Pique's shoulders. After many years learning alongside legendary captain Carles Puyol, most Cules expected his younger Catalan partner to follow in his footsteps and lead by example after his retirement.
Regrettably, Pique has been far from his best in the past 18 months, with the team as a whole suffering the consequences of such an obvious dip in form. An improved attitude on and off the pitch, together with an increased focus on his physical training, is urgently needed if the three-time FIFA World XI winner is to return to his former glory.
If Pique's abject performances are a source of concern, Barcelona will be pleased by the rapid improvement that Bartra has made. His consistency when given the chance to prove his worth was one of the very few positives of Gerardo Martino's time at the helm. Despite the two arrivals at central defence, the 23-year-old La Masia graduate is more than capable of competing for a starting spot in both domestic and European competition.
For the first time in years, Barcelona will start a season with four specialist centre-backs in their squad. Enrique will be hopeful that the increased number of players competing for a starting spot improves the team's overall performances.