opinionBy Julius Mbaraga
While we are used to seeing the captain's armband bringing the best out of players, it has been the other way round for Thomas Vermaelen.
Once known for his unyielding characteristics that prompted Arsenal fans to nickname him 'the Verminator,' the Belgian international's form has taken a downward spiral this season. Although he still possesses the handy knack of making valuable contributions at the business end of the pitch just as he did when he scored a last minute equalizer that led Arsenal to an undeserved period of extra-time in the Capital One Cup loss to Bradford, he is not the same player he was three seasons ago.
There are occasions this season when you felt the only reason he was in the side is because he is captain. He is no longer the uncompromising centre-half whose all-purpose dependability was integral to his elevation to the captaincy of a side who suffered continued ignominy in the face of high profile departures - Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie.
Vermaelen took no time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League three seasons ago and he quickly forged a reputation as one of the division's most solid defenders, his performances warranting his inclusion in the 2009/10 Professional Footballers' Association Team of the Year. The fact that that season, he also outscored the likes of both Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott only sweetened the deal for Gunners fans.
From that point on things look to have got progressively more difficult for him, culminating in an error-strewn season that has led many to question his automatic inclusion in the Gunners first team. A dismal performance at Manchester United, an alleged rollicking for his role in the 2-0 home defeat to Swansea and an unwanted starring role against Bradford spring to mind.
Injuries have also played their part. Since an uninterrupted first season at the club, Vermaelen has had to make do with an Arsenal career that has moved along in fits and starts. There has been no consistency at the back four with the likes of William Gallas and Gael Clichy moving on. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has also experimented a lot with the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
Vermaelen's intermittent deployment as a left-back has not helped either, with promising displays being offset by general wastefulness in possession and disregard for defensive cover when charging forward. Shunting the Belgian out to the left side of defense may be Wenger's way of acknowledging Koscielny and Mertesacker as his first-choice centre-half pairing and perhaps rightly so, yet it does little for his club captain's self-esteem.
The captaincy adds another layer to the question with Vermaelen now seemingly unable to be dropped off the back of continued poor form. It may be the case that responsibility and the task of replacing Robin van Persie weighs too heavily on Vermaelen's shoulders, particularly when there seem to be few candidates willing to take on the load.
It could, simply, all boil down to the fact that Arsenal is not a top-level team anymore. It is easy to play well amongst top-class and assured players in a team thriving on confidence, yet Vermaelen does not have that luxury any longer.
Whatever the matter, Vermaelen needs to redeem himself in the position he was once a nailed-down certainty for or else, risk losing the captain's armband and his first-team spot.