Is This The Best Man United Can Do?

There was a time when Thomas Vermaelen would have been a sensible signing for Manchester United, but that time was before two years of declining standards...

Last Updated: 08/08/14 at 09:38 Post Comment

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Rather than two bald men fighting over a comb, Manchester United and Barcelona's battle to sign Thomas Vermaelen is like two luscious-but-unruly haired men fighting over a comb with several teeth missing. Or an analogy much, much pithier that I can't conjure right now.

The absence of decent ideas is clearly also a problem for United and Barca. Two years ago we would have observed their pursuit of Vermaelen and nodded with approval, but in the intervening time the 28-year-old has endured a startling decline at Arsenal. Following fitness issues, poor form and glaring mistakes, Vermaelen is now a distant third choice for the fourth-best team in the Premier League.

For two teams who harbour title aspirations in the forthcoming campaign, that isn't the glowing scouting report to warrant such strong interest. And yet it hasn't deterred either United or Barca from offering around £10m for the Belgian. The fact that Vermaelen now has his pick of two of the biggest clubs in the world is both absurd and unexpected - an exit route from the Emirates bench beyond his wildest dreams.

The logic behind United's bid is that Louis van Gaal apparently wants a centre-back who is good on the ball which, ironically - in the Alanis Morissette definition - are thin on the ground. But even if that is the reason for Van Gaal's interest, Vermaelen simply hasn't proven his talent frequently enough over the past two years to suggest he would be a significant improvement to United's defence.

This leaves the club's fans facing a dilemma. Do they support Van Gaal unreservedly after his encouraging start or will they question an uninspiring move for an Arsenal cast-off? Vermaelen started only seven matches in the Premier League last season - including defeats to United and Everton - and came on in the first half of six-goal drubbings to Manchester City and Chelsea. Is that the recent CV required to replace Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand?

It's perhaps telling that Arsenal fans aren't particularly worried about the defender's impending departure, with Gooners holding various complaints against their faded hero. As Arsenal folded in the 2012/13 season, suffering embarrassing cup defeats to Bradford and Blackburn, Vermaelen failed to inspire a recovery amid the beginning of his personal negative spiral. Despite Arsenal eventually turning their form around and snatching fourth from Spurs, the captain played only 110 minutes in the run-in following a 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane on March 3.

He has never been able to recover his place. Injuries have played a part, of course, but more pertinent issues include a frustrating tendency to be caught out of position. Switching off at key moments is arguably Vermaelen's biggest flaw, however, with Robin van Persie profiting from his former teammate's error to score his first goal against Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2012.

It is never encouraging to sign a player who is seen with a sense of pity, but that's exactly what United will be doing if they push ahead with a move for Vermaelen. "Vermaelen could leave us because he needs to play now," said Arsene Wenger. "We're in a position where it's difficult to stand in his way."

Van Gaal clearly isn't a man to shirk a challenge, and he will back himself to turn Vermaelen's career around if a deal can be concluded. But all the evidence suggests building a new defence around the Belgian is a considerable gamble and, with United hoping to bridge the gap from seventh to first, it's a risk they possibly can't afford to take.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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