If we came to marvel routinely at the glitter of Arsenal, the shining insistence on seeking a kind of sublime quality to their play, a question always remained: what of the substance?
They have started this season with a familiar alertness to the promise of their guile, but it is possible to see, in the hard-eyed certainty of Thomas Vermaelen, a forceful conviction that might yet shape an answer to that lingering reservation.
Perhaps Arsène Wenger saw it, too, when the Belgian defender played against his team for Ajax in the Champions' League four years ago as a confidently persuasive teenager, or when he so physically tormented Robin van Persie in a pre- season friendly two years ago that the two players almost came to blows. There is something emphatic about Vermaelen, a cold clarity that defines his presence.
He does not immediately seem of this Arsenal team, looking somehow more darkly knowing than his team-mates as they emerged from Celtic Park last Tuesday night after what became a routine 2-0 victory in the Champions' League play-off first leg. His face, pale and shrewd, was grimly impassive. "It's more physical than I used to play in the Dutch league," he says of his introduction to British football, "but you have to cope with that, you have to be smart in the duel."
When Vermaelen signed in a £10m transfer from Ajax during the summer, the former Arsenal captain Tony Adams expressed doubts about his physical attributes, that he is not tall or broad enough to act like the kind of aggressively domineering centre-back the English game so reveres, but that is to misunderstand him. He is 6ft tall and lithely muscular, yet his decisiveness is found in the swiftness of his actions, his ability to read the game and act with resolution.
When Scott Brown, the Celtic midfielder, appeared in a menacing position in Arsenal's penalty area last Tuesday night, it was Vermaelen who quickly and vigorously intervened. With a keen sense of timing, he is able to out-jump taller opponents, while his use of the ball is considered and accurate enough to slip into the rhythm of this Arsenal team. Wenger has never spent more on a defender during his time at the club, but he was also sure of the 23-year-old's worth, having had him watched more than 30 times.
"They want to play football on the ground, with quick passing, and that's what we wanted at Ajax, so it's similar," Vermaelen says. "It's the same way with defending, keeping the pressure high. But if you train with players like there are at Arsenal, you improve yourself. For me, it's important to become a better player."
He can seem grave and austere, this tee-totaller who insisted on travelling on the Tube when he first arrived in London. He has found an empathy with William Gallas that has enabled an immediate understanding. Both like to carry the ball out of defence in surges but there is faith in each other and in the reliability of Alex Song to step back from midfield and cover.
"It's much easier to play [alongside Gallas] because I can learn from him," Vermaelen adds. "You see his positioning in the game, it's very good."
Wearing the No 5 jersey that once belonged to Kolo Touré, he brings meticulous application to his defending, but also an essentially uncompromising nature. "You have no scars on your face and you're a central defender," someone says, "you must be ready for a few in the Premier League."
"Yeah, maybe," he says witheringly, walking away.Reuse content