Following in the footsteps of fellow defender Marc Bartra, defender Thomas Vermaelen has moved on from Barcelona to greener pastures. Just as Lucas Digne returned from his summer break after the Euros, having played at AS Roma last season and bought from Paris Saint-Germain a few weeks ago, Vermaelen finalized a move in the opposite direction.
While Digne was purchased outright, Vermaelen is being loaned out with a buy option after the season. When Barcelona signed the Belgian in 2014, it was expected that he would challenge Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano for their starting spots, but injuries plagued his time at the Camp Nou and he was never able to be the player that the club thought that they were getting from Arsenal.
At Arsenal, Vermaelen dealt with constant injuries, particularly in 2010-2011 when he only played five league games, but he played with class and pose when he was able to get on the field. He appeared in 110 games for the Gunners, scoring 14 goals along the way, and he was named captain of the squad for his contributions to the team on and off the field.
When Barcelona acquired the defender for €19 million two summers ago, they knew they were getting an injury-prone player, but the board believed that the potential reward outweighed the risk. After only 11 league appearances in the following two years, the risk clearly did not equal the reward.
Like several recent Barcelona managers, Luis Enrique would prefer to play a left-footed defender on the left side of his defense. With neither Pique nor Mascherano fitting that description, Vermaelen was bought to serve that purpose. Due to his injuries, any positive impact by Vermaelen at Barcelona must simply be evaluated by his leadership qualities off the pitch, though he obviously had a great deal of competition there as well.
After apparently showing a regression in his play, Pique returned to his best in 2014 with the arrival of competition in Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu. Since the Belgian only played in one game that campaign due to a recurring hamstring injury, he wasn’t able to challenge Pique in the way that the club had expected.
He spent the majority of his time in Catalunya on the trainer’s table, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do his fair share of winning. In two seasons, he has added seven trophies to his resumé, including a Champions League and two La Liga titles.
Vermaelen's second season was a little better than his first, scoring in his second game against Malaga off a corner kick. However, he didn’t often feature in Luis Enrique’s plans and he only made 12 other appearances last season.
The Belgian's inability to succeed at Barcelona isn’t an indictment of his career, however, as he has achieved personal success at the international level, even if the trophies haven’t followed. He has been awarded 58 caps, scoring one goal, and he was a regular fixture of Belgium’s back-line during their recent qualifying campaign for the Euros, as well as the tournament itself.
After two difficult seasons, Barcelona knew that they wouldn’t be able to get back what they paid for him, but at 30 years old, he should still have a few years left if he can finally stay healthy. His loan move to Roma with a buy option at the end appears to be another example of Barcelona compromising on transfer fees to honour players’ wishes and keep good relations with other clubs.
Nevertheless, finding players with the technical training befitting of Barcelona and experience of high-profile games limits the club's options. It is no surprise that Vermaelen is a former Ajax player, a club that nurtures young players like Luis Suarez and Vermaelen to play confident football with the ball at their feet. While the number was a lot higher in past generations, the pipeline from Ajax to Barcelona is well-traveled ground.
So too is the pipeline from Arsenal to Barcelona. In truth, Vermaelen was simply following in the footsteps of former teammates at the Emirates, Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Song and Aleksander Helb. Other than acquiring Ajax-trained and Arsenal players, Barcelona has recently done quite a lot of business with Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia too.
It’s easy to consider the what-if of Vermaelen’s health, but no one can argue that Barcelona would have had a tremendous player had he stayed healthy. If the Belgian international succeeds at Roma this season on loan, the Italian club should be willing to pay his buy option next summer. If not, Barcelona will again be on the lookout for a new home for yet another failed signing.