As Arsenal were drawn against the Turkish side Besiktas in the play-off round for the Champions League yesterday, the club’s captain Thomas Vermaelen was on the verge of signing for Barcelona.
The Catalan club are said to have agreed a £15m fee with the Gunners, leaving Manchester United frustrated in their attempts to secure the defender’s services.
The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, wanted to take a United player in part-exchange in the deal – Chris Smalling had been identified as a like-for-like replacement – but United were unwilling to proceed on that basis.
On Thursday, Wenger admitted that his captain might leave, and had hinted that their Premier League rivals United were chasing the 28-year-old.
“He could leave, it could happen, I’ve said that since the start of pre-season,” said Wenger ahead the Community Shield encounter with Manchester City at Wembley tomorrow.
“He needs to play now,” he added. “He has shown an outstanding attitude but he is in a position where we wouldn’t stand in his way if he finds an interesting opportunity.”
Wenger has seen Manchester City snap up several of his players over the last few seasons – Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy and, this summer, Bacary Sagna – and now sees another former captain, Cesc Fabregas, arriving at Chelsea after turning down the opportunity to re-sign the Spaniard from Barcelona. So Wenger is unlikely to have wanted to sell Vermaelen to a domestic rival. He had said: “Ideally, yes, we would like to sell him abroad and that is an option for us.”
Vermaelen arrived at Arsenal from Ajax for £10m in the summer of 2009 and became a key figure in the centre of defence, as well as posing an aerial threat in the opposition penalty area.
However, after a couple of successful seasons his form dipped alarmingly and that was exacerbated by problems with his fitness. Last season he made just 21 appearances in all competitions.
His absence was not keenly felt last term: an apparent lack of confidence meant he had become prone to errors and also Wenger unearthed a formidable central-defensive partnership in the German Per Mertesacker and the Frenchman Laurent Koscielny.
Vermaelen provided decent cover for that pairing but now he has moved on – and fellow centre-back Johann Djourou has finally signed for Hamburg after going out on loan to the German club last season – Arsenal once again find themselves rather thin on the ground at the back.
Hence Wenger’s desire to use a United defender as a makeweight in any deal. He has already splashed out £16m on Southampton teenager Callum Chambers, who is able to play at centre-back, right-back or in midfield.
But Wenger is understandably keen not to give the 19-year-old a heavy workload – he had only played 25 times for the senior side at St Mary’s after making his debut at the start of last season.
With Mertesacker still recovering from the World Cup, Chambers is likely to team up with Koscielny in central defence tomorrow. Mathieu Debuchy, who has arrived from Newcastle United, is set to slot in at right-back following the departure of Sagna – who will not face his old club.
However, all eyes are likely to be on a new Arsenal player further up the field tomorrow in the form of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean is the club’s big-money signing so far at around £35m, and much is expected of him.
There will be a fair amount of attention on his partner up front, who is expected to be young French striker Yaya Sanogo. The 21-year-old failed to score a competitive goal for the senior team last season and provoked despondency among fans who were looking for reinforcements in case of injury to Olivier Giroud. However, Sanogo scored four goals against Benfica in the Emirates Cup last Saturday. That may be enough to keep Giroud on the bench.
Besiktas will be no pushovers for Arsenal, the Turkish side beating Feyenoord in the previous qualifying round with Demba Ba, formerly of Chelsea, scoring a hat-trick.