Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Vermaelen’s inspiring performance against Manchester City provides glimmer of hope amid injuries-galore

On Inside The Formation we'll look at an individual player's performance and analyse their input into the game. Today Joss Bennett looks at Thomas Vermaelen's performance against Manchester City.

It’s not the first time I’ve written an “Inside the formation” article on this man, and it won’t be the last (let’s hope not, anyway). Thomas Vermaelen has come back from injury this season (having missed three-quarters of the last one) as if nothing ever happened – finding the form that made him one of the signings of the season In 2009/10 with more goals, and more hard-hitting tackles.

Vermaelen has shown all the signs of a true great with some superb performances already this season – notable performances including a goal and assist in the 4-0 demolition of Wigan and a superb defensive display against Marseille in the 0-0. More important than individual performances, however, has been his consistency – regularly reaching the high standards he set himself in his début season with little time needed to recover from a lengthy injury.

And now he’s started doing the same thing at left-back, too. With injuries to André Santos and Kieran Gibbs (surprise surprise!), Arsenal have had to re-shuffle their defence – one result being that the Belgian centre-half has had to play in an unfamiliar left-back role. The Gunners’ vice-captain has shown very few signs of weakness and has helped Arsenal to concede just the one goal in his two games at left-back.

Solid defensive performances are perhaps still to be expected from a centre-back played slightly out of position; Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic has perfected the role of a defensive full-back, having played centre-back for most of his career. However, Vermaelen has not simply stayed back and acted as what would effectively be a third centre-back – out and out defending has never been his style.

Instead, ‘the Verminator’ has made the role his own with some fantastically balanced performances – not least against some of the best players in the Premier League at the City of Manchester stadium this weekend.

In fact, Vermaelen’s take on the left-back role was surprisingly similar to his role as a centre-back. As always, the former Ajax man used his strength and anticipation to mark his man (in this case David Silva) tightly and deny him time and space on the ball. Despite technically playing as a wide-forward, like many creative players Silva looked to drop back into midfield where there was more space whenever possible, before drifting inside and playing the ball forward to the strikers.

With Vermaelen marking the Spaniard tightly all game, the result was that the Arsenal defender had to push up to near the halfway line too, and make sure the player with the third-most average key passes in the League this season (2.8) and the joint-most through-balls per game (0.8 – ironically level with Arsenal’s Alex Song) was denied time on the ball to pick a pass*.

Vermaelen’s tight-marking is clear to see on the chalkboards, which show him making 100% of his tackles in the same small area (a sixth) of the pitch – completing four tackles (including two aerial duels) from five and one interception altogether in the first half**.

Of course man-marking so far up the pitch is a very dangerous game, especially considering the quality of City’s players. With Micah Richards keen to bomb up the touchline at every opportunity, Vermaelen needed all the help he could get from players around him – Laurent Koscielny and, in particular, Gervinho both helped to cover the zone behind Vermaelen; the latter making four successful tackles in total during the first half**.

Taking the risks explained above into account, it’s understandable that Vermaelen didn’t tend to push too far forward when his side had the ball. Ironically, he came closest to goal in the second half, when he had switched back to centre-back. However, that’s not to say Vermaelen didn’t join attacks at all – he attempted 36% of his passes in the opposition half – just that he was clearly more cautious; attempting zero crosses during the game and tending to play shorter, simpler passes inside to more creative players**.

At centre-back, Vermaelen was equally impressive in yet another tactical role. Having adopted a more aggressive role further up the pitch in the first half, Vermaelen acted as more of a traditional ‘sweeper’ in the second (or at least part of it). Despite being just 26, Vermaelen has huge experience to offer, and spent most of his time in the second half helping out young Spanish defender Ignasi Miquel – making four of his five second half interceptions on the left side of the pitch**.

Even without full-backs, Arsenal were able to provide a real test for a Man City side who largely struggled to create clear-cut chances – and even then, failed to take most of them. Vermaelen was clearly a major part in keeping the score low and the game alive as it becomes increasingly clear that Arsenal have gone from having no leaders on the pitch to having not just one, but two as the ‘Verminator’ continues to stamp his mark on every game he plays.

Joss Bennett is co-editor and head writer of Arsenal blog Arsenal Report - a site for all Gooners interested in tactics, stats and the inner workings of the club. You can follow him on twitter and his read is work at Arsenal Report.

Video produced by CWDailyGoonerCulann Davies is founder, head writer and video editor of Arsenal blog CWDailyGooner - a site for all Gooners interested in analysis of Arsenal's first teamers, youngsters and loanees in video form. You can follow him on twitter and read his work at CWDailyGooner.

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