Conclusions to questions that need time to work out abounded in the first weeks of the football season, many of them involving Barça or its chief rivals, most of them with roots in a phrase:
“The Verminator is back.”
Now this isn’t true, and we know it isn’t. To declare Thomas Vermaelen a successful signing after a single (albeit MOTM) outing would be sufficiently premature to inspire howls of laughter. But the notion does indicate a general trend that is happening in football, and not only because of the evaluative brushfire that is social media. Pedro got in the starting XI of Chelsea and notched a goal and an assist. The columns speak of his genius, and how it was the perfect move for Chelsea, and shame on United. Mourinho, in a bit of hyperbolic excess that we can guess even he chuckled at, invoked Maradona in talking about Pedro’s display. Meanwhile, Adama Traore set a Premiership pitch on fire with spectacular runs, and “What a talent, how did Barça let him go,” or “stupid club, he could have been doing that for us!” Sporting Gijon, bless its plucky little soul, notched a scoreless draw with Real Madrid by fighting fire with fire. “Attack ‘em! Let’s do this!”
What does it all mean in the context of a game in which last season, one in which Barça won the treble, Real Madrid was the best team that anyone had ever seen until the break, when injuries and fatigue began to have their say. Everyone loves a good story. Redemption stories are even better. Days after the Barça match, the almost incredulous posting of the stats from the Vermaelen match on Sunday were still going on. SixTEEN clearances!
When Vermaelen was signed by the club in the summer 2014 window, the hue and cry rose to a din. Dude was perpetually injured. He was pranged for Arsenal, pranged for his national team. He recovered in time for the World Cup, played, and … went off injured. His injury record over the last four seasons read like a Greek tragedy, and Barça bought him. And when he wasn’t injured he stank, so much so that he was benched while wearing the captain’s armband.
The Vermaelen buy was said to be just one more act in the resume of a then-incompetent sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, who history probably views a bit differently now. The club said that Vermaelen passed the medical, and just needed some rehab. His first work in the colors, after a few more relapses, was in a B friendly against some Asia all-stars, and … he was injured. Finally, the club confessed that he would need surgery, but at the end of that surgery he would be right as rain and ready to rock.
Culers could well be forgiven for viewing such pronouncements with a healthy dose of skepticism, given not only his injury record but the ups and downs of a crazy career.
In theory, as a defender, Vermaelen’s skill sets fit perfectly with the needs of his new club. He has pace, closing speed, passing ability, can score goals and fill in at left back if needed. His aerial ability is also strong as is his facility at passing out of the back. But again, the questions lingered about what a perpetually injured defender who was poor when he wasn’t injured, was going to bring to a club gunning for all the trophies. Not much, as it turned out, though Vermaelen gave a glimpse of what he had to offer during the final match of the 2014-15 season, when he returned on schedule to show very well against Deportivo La Coruna at the Camp Nou.
In pre-season Vermaelen featured regularly, with performances as erratic as the team’s overall showing, perhaps like his mates showing the after-effects of a rigorous Enrique training regimen and U.S. tour. But for culers who had been paying attention, his being named to the XI for Sunday’s Liga opener against Athletic Club was no surprise. Pique and Mathieu were suspended, and Bartra had failed to impress during his pre-season outings. With one CB pairing being locked down by Mascherano, the other was, obviously to most, that of Vermaelen.
According to WhoScored.com where he was named him Man of the Match, Vermaelen’s 8.06 rating was accompanied by the following stats: 2 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 foul, 16 clearances, with a 90 percent passing accuracy from 83 total attempts. One of those tackles was a goal-saving one that came within a hair’s breadth of being a penalty, and his yellow card was justly earned and applauded in my man cave. It was precisely the kind of message that needed to be sent after Atheltic spent the afternoon kicking chunks out of Barça players.
Vermaelen even outshone the legitimately excellent RB debut of Sergi Roberto, who substituted for an injured Dani Alves early in the first half.
What next? Jeremy Mathieu returns from suspension for the next match against Malaga, so it’s a safe bet that Vermaelen will return to the “in case of fire … “ category on the bench. But his performance against Athletic made it clear why he has leapfrogged Team Handsome superstar Marc Bartra in the CB pecking order. And maybe, just maybe, should he continue to perform up to his new old standard, Vermaelen will be a useful squad player instead of what so many perceived him as, EUR15m ripped up and tossed into the air like confetti.
So far. Next match, he might allow one goal, score an own goal, trip over Adriano and have his hamstring leave his body. No idea.
Pedro has scored hat tricks for Barça. He has also been invisible. As an attacker, he should find the open spaces of the Premiership more to his liking but time will have a lot to do with that, as well as how defenses adjust to his presence. Take away his running space, and what happens? And then there’s Traore, yet another example of the great answers race.
His first two possessions found him bracketed, and dispossessed easily. His third featured an overconfident opponent that left him running space. He took it, and the result was a goal. Next time he got the ball, defenders made the same mistake and he took them apart yet again.
Figuring out the error of their ways, the defense closed ranks and Traore became mortal again. Even more interesting was to watch him off the ball as he stood around almost disinterestedly. At a couple of moments opponents played the ball around him, where his pace could have caused an interception and chaos, but he just stood there. This isn’t to bring down his performance, but to suggest that faucets deliver hot and cold water and the answers that we seek usually come over time as a picture develops fully.
Rafa Benitiez is already a mess, and Barça is struggling. Both ran into buzzsaws of opponents who were ready and prepared. No glamour tours of the globe or late-vacationing superstars, just a circled date on the calendar with “Get ‘em!” written underneath. Samper and Grimaldo haven’t been promoted, which means somebody is stupid, inept, something or other. This has to be, because there are questions that need answers and time is wasting.
My favorite question is “What does it mean?” If Samper and Grimaldo are still at B and Gumbau is in the first team, what does it mean? There has to be a plan, and the plan can’t be “Let’s elevate a crappy player and leave blinding talents in the Segunda B muck. Yeah!”
So what is the plan? Are the two talents so essential to the task of the climb out of Segunda B that they can’t be spared for “body duty” on the first team bench while Gumbau and Camara can? Did someone weigh the pluses and minuses of having them at first team vs B team and decide they would be more valuable where they were, leading a team instead of getting bits and pieces of matches? No idea. But evaluating the actions of a team wallowing in the miasma of administrative ineptitude is complex, and defies easy answers. “Because they don’t know what they’re doing,” however, is one that strains credulity. It’s a rapid rush to judgment as fraught as making a season declaration after a single match.
It’s a world in which there are no right or wrong answers, where nobody is on the correct side of the fence. What we have is what is happening and our questions about that, queries that exist in the context of reality rather than desired interpretations of reality. In an ideal world, poor coaches wouldn’t have damaged Barça B, the team wouldn’t have been relegated, knuckleheads wouldn’t have caused a transfer ban which would have meant reinforcements everywhere. We would have traded Adriano for a goat, deputized Mathieu or Vermaelen at LB as Grimaldo came along, because B would have had a capable fill-in for his role. Denis Suarez would be blazing a trail on the left wing in Pedro’s absence until Mumps Boy returns and Samper would be training under the wing of Busquets, getting time in Copa ties and early-round Champions League matches.
But none of that happened. Pedro didn’t leave because of Mourinho’s black arts. He left because he wanted more playing time than he was going to get with Neymar in the house. As supporters, we are powerless to do anything except discuss and debate and if you’re crazy, bang out words on a blog. Board members make the big decisions, coaches make the team decisions. We can debate, but not affect. In many ways that makes the vehemence of it all, the necessity for fast conclusions, easy. There’s no consequence. A supporter isn’t getting fired for having said that Vermaelen was a wasted buy like a coach would for taking a bid on the wrong player. That should make it fun, that lack of risk, while the lack of knowledge makes it all more fascinating, more question-inducing. What is the plan for Samper and Grimaldo? What will Pedro be like after a month of Mondays in Stoke? Can Vermaelen keep it up? And what about that new RB Barça has, the dude who was a waste of oxygen in midfield?
So many questions that all defy easy answers because they require time and patience, letting a season unfold. That’s where the fun comes in, no matter how much fun it might be to type …
The Verminator is back!