Thomas Vermaelen: Wenger pulls another rabbit out of the hat

Yes, Arsène's found another one... a £10m Belgian defender who looks great in both boxes and has already proved to Tony Adams that size doesn't matter. Steve Tongue speaks to Thomas Vermaelen
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The Independent Football

If it was mildly surprising that Arsenal, having sold a leading striker, should have set a new record for most goals in the opening seven matches of a Premier League season, the identity of the leading contributor was more of a shock. For Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgian centre-half hired in June from Ajax, "it's nice to score goals but not the most important thing".

Yet going into yesterday's game with Birmingham, five goals in his first two months at the club kept him ahead in the scoring charts of Robin van Persie, Eduardo and the rest.

The feeling in many quarters was that, with Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor off to the riches of Eastlands, Arsenal would struggle at both ends of the pitch and that Manchester City were a fair bet to steal the position in the top four they have occupied for the 13 seasons since a little-known manager called Arsène Wenger walked through the door.

Even before those two hugely profitable sales, there were rumblings that Wenger would never spend sufficient money to bring renewed success. "Arsène can't keep pulling rabbits out of the hat," was the view of one confidant who believed he needed more financial backing. Yet part of Wenger's genius has been in acquiring raw talent and slowly maturing it, profiting first the team and later the bank balance too.

In Vermaelen, the word now is that "Arsène's found another one". The manager himself admits that it is "surprising" how quickly his latest capture has settled in, and "crazy" that Arsenal should be benefiting from such a Bogof: buy a stopper centre-half, get a leading scorer free.

Assured without approaching arrogance, Vermaelen believes that being thrown in right from the start has had a positive effect. "It helped me that the manager put me in the team right from the first game, which was good for me," he said on Friday at a training centre that he has found "amazing". And what a start it was: Everton away on the first day of the season, an early test against another club with aspirations to that top-four place. After a 6-1 win including a Vermaelen headed goal, followed three days later by a 2-0 victory at Celtic, a less modest man might have considered this British football was not all it was cracked up to be.

Vermaelen has nevertheless retained his respect, developed over many years as an Anglophile in a small town near Antwerp and then, aged only 15, across the border in a new country at the famed Ajax academy. "It was difficult at that age, leaving my parents and friends, going to another school, but the academy at Ajax is very good to learn football. I think it is very like Arsenal. They want to play football, keep the ball moving."

On Tuesday he will meet up again with the man who gave him his first game in an Ajax shirt, Ronald Koeman, now in charge of Arsenal's Champions' League opponents AZ Alkmaar: "A good manager, with good experience as a player, and very good with people." A loan at Waalwijk helped his development before he returned to the pressured world of the Amsterdam club: "At Ajax you always have to win."

Winning the Dutch League proved beyond them, however, in an era dominated by PSV Eindhoven, and Vermaelen knew that the opportunity to move on could always arise at what is now very much a selling club. "The Dutch league is not so big any more. If a player is very good, Ajax will sell him." He was just thrilled that, once established in the Belgian national team and installed as Ajax captain (albeit at left-back), he should become an Arsenal target.

Their paths had already crossed several times, rather painfully for Van Persie at a pre-season Ajax tournament. "I was jumping in the air and pushed him a little bit, it was not a big thing," is how Vermaelen remembered the incident. Van Persie may not have been impressed, and told him so, but on the sidelines Wenger was, and added another entry to his mental filing cabinet. The manager had already noted Vermaelen when Ajax played at Highbury in the Champions' League and later became the first visitors to the Emirates when Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial match inaugurated the ground.

Wenger has said of the most expensive (£10m) defender he ever bought: "I thought he could adapt quickly but not that quickly. He has intelligence, physical strength and a good technical level – all the ingredients to be successful in the Premier League."

The appreciation is mutual, with Vermaelen saying: "He's very intelligent and has a great vision of football. He knows how he wants to play and it's always the same every game we play. In training or in the dressing-room I've never heard him shout, though of course sometimes in a game he can be emotional. But when we come in at half-time, it's always calm and rest before he'll start to talk. So I'm having a good time, it's nice to be here. It feels like a family.

"But it was not a big decision to come here because this is one of the biggest clubs in the world. I always wanted to play in this league, which I think is maybe the best in the world. I love the atmosphere and the way they play the game."

There was another bonus in the Champions' League draw, taking him back to Belgium for the opening game with Standard Liège, who provided a startling opening for the Arsenal defence. "It was only the second time I've played in Belgium, which was special, and I knew they were a good team. We went two-nil down after four or five minutes but it was good that Nicklas [Bendtner] scored just before half-time, because we knew in the half-time that we could score one or two more. Then against Olympiacos I think we played our best half of the season and knew the goals would come, though we had to wait."

Two wins from two games, then, and now Koeman's Alkmaar. "I played against them for the last few years and know them very well. They have a lot of Belgian players too. They will play as a team with great discipline, like they did last season under Louis van Gaal. They have good players up front like [Mounir] El Hamdaoui and the Belgian guy [Moussa] Dembele, but the real strength is as a team. I think they're going to be quite defensive."

It would be a shock if Arsenal failed to come through the group stage of the competition for the first time since the ill-fated experiment of playing at Wembley 10 years ago. Vermaelen knows as well as his new team-mates, however, that it has been four seasons since Arsenal secured a trophy. Can they actually win something again as well as continuing to please purists and aesthetes? "If you see Barcelona last year, they played the best football in the world and won every trophy they could win. The way we've played the last few games, I think we can win some prizes. We have to be confident in the way we think."

Apart from two defeats in successive games by the Manchester clubs, the downside to the season for him has been Belgium's failure to qualify for the World Cup. With little realistic hope of finishing above Spain, they nevertheless fancied their chances against Turkey and Bosnia, but two days before we spoke they had even lost to Estonia to end an inglorious campaign in fourth place.

"It's a big disappointment but the last [few] years the results have not been good. We hoped to win against Turkey and we beat them last week, but Bosnia were a very good team with players like [Edin] Dzeko from the Bundesliga, and they deserve to be in the play-off. Spain were the best team and I think they can win the World Cup. They play a little bit like Arsenal want to play, passing the ball."

More Frank McLintock-sized than Andy Linighan – or even Tony Adams, who has questioned whether he would be tall enough – Vermaelen benefits from a terrific spring belying his 5ft 10in, which has helped him accumulate those five goals as well as bringing aerial strength to a defence sometimes suspect at set-pieces.

He says of his own form: "I'm happy but I want to improve myself as a defender and learn. For me it's important to train every day against strikers like Andrey Arshavin, that's good for me and I want to learn a lot in every training and every game. [Wayne] Rooney and Adebayor were very good against us and good opponents to learn from." So too defensive team-mates such as William Gallas: "He's very strong physically, experienced, and you can see that in the way he plays. And [Gaël] Clichy next to me, he's fantastic."

Remembering perhaps his days as a full-back, he is not averse to trusting those colleagues to cover him while he ventures forward: "If there's space and it's not a big risk, you have to go forwards." Thus did he acquire a second goal in the 4-0 victory over Wigan, the first having arrived from a more typical set-piece header.

Settled with his girlfriend in a Hampstead flat which was all sorted out by Arsenal before his first day's work, life is grand for the boy from Kapellen. Yesterday he even became the first new signing ever to be voted Player of the Month by supporters in both of his first two months at the club. Five goals to date, and a good bet for the Emirates Golden Boot? "I don't think so, no!" It is a prospect to make Van Persie wince again.

Famous footballing Belgians

Philippe Albert: "Everyone knows his name," the Toon Army chanted, and everyone did after a cheeky chip over Peter Schmeichel as Newcastle beat Manchester United 5-0 in 1996.

Jean-Marc Bosman: Achieved little of note in a modest career with two Liège clubs but changed football when he successfully challenged rules preventing a player moving clubs for nothing at the end of a contract.

Nico Claesen: A speedy if fragile winger, who scored 28 goals in 56 starts for Spurs and appeared in the 1987 FA Cup final. His 36 caps for Belgium took in two World Cups and the 1984 Euros.

Marouane Fellaini: Unclear yet whether history and Everton fans will remember him best for his big hair or his big headers. His £12m fee – rising to £15m – is the highest paid for any Belgian player.

Enzo Scifo: Gifted midfield player with Italian parents who appeared at four World Cups (1986-98) while playing for leading clubs in Belgium, Italy (Inter) and France.

Paul van Himst: Best of the lot? Joint record scorer for national team with 30 goals, and eight League titles at Anderlecht. Even appeared in 'Escape to Victory'.

Steve Tongue

Wenger's best buys

Thierry Henry: A fish out of water after joining Juventus from Monaco, he was reunited with Wenger for £10m and converted from a winger into a striker with such success that he became the club's highest scorer (226 goals) and was voted Arsenal's greatest player by supporters.

Patrick Vieira: Signed by Wenger even before he officially joined the club, with Milan delighted to accept £3.5m for a callow 20-year-old who had been allowed only two first-team games. But after more than 400 matches bestriding the midfield, Wenger knew when to sell Vieira as well, collecting £18m from Juventus.

Cesc Fabregas: Not so much a buy as a steal; Barcelona were furious to lose him because he was too young to sign a professional contract for them. Became the club's youngest first-team player and youngest goalscorer, often running the midfield as a 17-year-old. Club captain at 21.

And the others Wenger made the most money on...

Emmanuel Adebayor: Had barely scored a goal every four games with Monaco when Wenger paid £4m for him in 2006. Sold for £25m to Manchester City last summer.

Nicolas Anelka: PFA Young Player of the Year two seasons after joining Arsenal for £500,000. Sold a year later to Real Madrid for £22m – a 4,300 per cent increase.

Kolo Toure: Cost £150,000 from ASEC Mimosas as a 20-year-old defensive midfielder; sold to Manchester City for £16m.

Steve Tongue