Vermaelen and fantastic finishes

The life of a substitute player is like luggage. You sit in the closet until it’s your time to become essential. If football gave out awards for living your best life, Barça would have a couple of candidates, but the vote for Thomas Vermaelen would be clear.

The Belgian center back has been, low-key, one of the stories of the season — not just for Barça. Period.

We all know how this one began, from sparkling stalwart at Arsenal to a player who couldn’t keep fit, finally offloaded to Barça, complete with mobility scooter.

He passed his medical even though he wasn’t fit to play, and subsequently needed surgery. The vitriol that culers generated about his signing would be sufficient to fill the Camp Nou. He came back, was injured, came back, and worked through a series of knocks before being passed fit for a club for whose supporters he had become a joke. He couldn’t even get his free Audi out of a tight parking situation, a moment chronicled on video to the amusement of club supporters. Couldn’t even drive, much less play CB.

“High winds? Better check on Vermaelen.” “He sneezed, and had to go on the injury list.”

When Samuel Umtiti went out with a hamstring injury, chagrin was the calling card of the fanbase. His form had many, for good reason, calling him the best center back in the game. He was an essential part of the way Barça attacked and defended. Mascherano was battling a number of knocks, and it’s safe to say that few anticipated what would happen.

Vermaelen was fit, and entered the side as a sub. He sparkled. He started the next match, then the next, then the next. He had to, because the only CBs Barça had were he and Pique. But he didn’t just play. His nickname, at one time, was the Verminator for the way that he played his position. Sharp and decisive, positionally adept and master of any header in his area, he was beloved by Arsenal supporters for the very attributes that prompted Barça to take a low-cost shot on him becoming fit and finding him form as a utility player.

Supporters could scarcely believe it. “He started another match!”

It is somehow fitting that in this — so far — storybook season, Vermaelen has been one of the most valuable players in the seemingly interminable stretch on the sidelines for Umtiti, who has returned to the squad for the Betis match. Such is Vermaelen’s form that many are suggesting that with Umtiti back, Pique should be the one who sits, rather than Vermaelen.

That is a long way back for a player who many insisted was never, ever going to be useful for his new club, that he was money thrown down the drain, treated as if his injuries were his fault, that he somehow told his body to let him down once again. Through it all, Vermaelen has never been less than a consummate professional.

In the summer, Vermaelen wanted to leave, and had offers. The club said no. Its new coach, Ernesto Valverde, wanted to keep him. In a interview with Sport, Vermaelen was frank:

“Now I am not playing, so I am in a difficult situation. I can’t play with Barça B, where I could get some form because the Spanish legislation doesn’t allow it. It’s a regrettable situation.”

“I understand the doubts because I’m not playing much for my club, but I don’t feel I need to prove anything. … And what can happen in January is the future, things can change quickly, we will see.”

“I’ve spoken with the manager, of course, and they’re happy with how I am training. It’s clear that in a club like Barcelona, three centre-backs is not enough, you need four or five. An injury or a suspension and I will be back in the squad. For now, it’s not great, but next week could be different.”

Then Umtiti chased after a Celta Vigo attacker, pulled up, and everything changed. The Vermaelen tale is now one with a very happy ending. A player who was looking to leave one of the biggest clubs in world football so that he could get playing time to keep form, dropped into that team’s XI, form intact, to become a defensive linchpin.

Subs are expected to hold down the fort until the key player returns. And while Vermaelen isn’t at the level of Umtiti — no CB in Europe is — the team in no way suffered. It even thrived, and the classy Belgian has been essential. Rarely a misplaced pass, he dropped into the back line as if to the manner born. The player raised in the storied Ajax system fit, his pass completion percentage one of the most telling markers.

There haven’t been a spate of interviews with Vermaelen by major media outlets, which is a shame. His story is fantastic, the comeback from everything to, at age 32, when a lot of players are ready to call it quits, stepping into the spotlight for a European giant, his powers unabated, the right man with the right style at the exact right time.

And should those interviews come, it’s a safe bet that one of his interlocutors will ask him, “Are you happy that Barça said ‘No’ to your transfer wishes?” And it’s an even safer bet that before answering, Vermaelen will smile the happy, contented smile of a player who has overcome so much and now has a new life. He has transformed from perpetually broken joke to an essential cog in a storied run by a team that is walking away with its league and is a Champions League favorite.

Not bad for a “waste of money.”

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

5 Comments

  1. Jim
    January 21, 2018

    A good and worthy choice for an article as what TV has achieved is no mean feat. To come back at all after such a catalogue of continual injuries each one of which eats away at your ability to perform as you once did speaks volumes about both his determination and his class as a defender. He was for a long time my favourite defender in the EPL . I loved watching the calm decisive way he did everything and was fully supportive of us picking him up cheaply on the off chance. Well, it took a long time ( and not to jinx him ) but he now looks like a steal.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with our CBs when Umtiti and the new guy are ready to play. In one sense it is good because it will allow rotation. As Kxevin says it may be that Pique will get some rest, which is a good thing, although the idea he would be benched for either Umtiti or TV is at least slightly far fetched. I must get me on Twitter as I’ve not heard anyone suggest that Umtiti is the best CB on the planet or indeed that anyone thinks we should play TV ahead of Pique. Official notice – I’m dusting off the handbook of the Pique fairness committee just in case. For me, and I stress at the moment, Pique is head and shoulders our best CB, probably followed by a fit TV and, slightly behind, Umtiti. I say this because for years Pique has held our defence together in the absence of FBs ( up raiding) or Masche ( well, uh, up raiding again I suppose, or at least AWOL ) . TV gets the nod for me as its not often a team manages to get between him and Pique and he is continually looking at his partner and adjusting position accordingly. Great stuff. ( Now I’m sure I’ve jinxed him ).

    The great thing for me about TV is that he stays put, knows that staying on your feet is better than jumping in and that covering for your partner is vital. He is also, as has been said a good and safe passer of a ball. For me, as we’ve seen on a few occasions Umtiti can get a rush of blood and leave his post and he’s not as good in the air as he’ll need to be when Pique goes. What he does have is the potential to become one of the best CBs in the world and his purchase was a great piece of work by the club. He already shows great calm on the ball and is good at recovering it. . If the new guy turns out to be good enough or as astute a purchase as Umtiti then the future of our defence is indeed secured but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    I realise that this effort is slightly shorter than my usual Sunday missives but it is written while watching an awful Scottish match and to put off returning to fill in my wife and I’s ESTAs for our trip to Vegas and San Fran in April ( 🙁 Was meant to be Barcelona but I was decisively outvoted 1-1 by the other half before Christmas as she didn’t like the uncertainty surrounding events there. The irony of visiting the USA instead at this moment in time is not lost on me, trust me. ) However, the main man seems to have decided that he needs to ask me about twice the amount of questions since my last visit only about two years ago ! It doesn’t take an expert to see what the focus of the extra attention is either . So I’d better get back onto it.

    Any chance of America being open again by the time I get there ?

  2. TITO
    January 21, 2018

    Well, it was to bound to happen sooner or later.
    You guys, should hace waited until the end of the season.

  3. Víctor
    January 21, 2018

    Well, that’s bad… glad Umtiti recovered just in time. Quite a hard game but Barça should prevail.

  4. Jim
    January 21, 2018

    Bugger ! Did jinx him. Bit low down for a hammy as the commentators were saying though. Might not be quite as bad as it looked.

  5. TITO
    January 21, 2018

    And that’s how you kill a game, in a hard away game.

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