Arsenal FC defender Thomas Vermaelen speaks exclusively to Stephanie Jones in the latest edition of Champions, explaining the attacking proclivities that have brought him seven Premier League goals this season.
Born in a small town in northern Belgium, Vermaelen left to sign for Ajax at 15. Leaving home so young, he says, shaped his development, made him grow up and become tougher. He admits it was hard sometimes. Moving to London, to a harder league, was nowhere near as tough. "I was made to feel comfortable here. The boss made it easy for me to settle in by letting me play every game. If you don't do that in your first year it can be difficult. The team too. They're really young, and that makes it easy to settle."
He has made the transition look easy, his exploits at both ends of the pitch grabbing the headlines. He maintains defending is his priority but said: "I like to get forward. At AFC Ajax too, sometimes we had to move up and create another midfielder. That's important in the way they play. But you always have to be aware of what's behind you. One of us centre-backs always has to stay behind. Only at corners or free-kicks can we both go."
Vermaelen has to go up for those corners, because he can out-jump most. It is his basketball player's leap that so impressed the Arsenal scouts. Jumping is something he's always been good at, but he says he had to learn to compensate for his lack of height. He is 1.82m, but most centre-backs are taller. He has been likened to Fabio Cannavaro, another combative player. Does he see the similarity? It is obvious he has been asked this question before.
People make an issue about my height, but I can name a lot of centre-backs who aren't bigger than me. It can be an advantage sometimes being tall, but when you're tall you're not quick enough to turn, and that's not good." Is it a bore being asked about it all the time? "It's not a problem talking about it. I know what I'm capable of."
Having spent his career at two clubs who vaunt the idea of the purist's game, is it safe to say he enjoys playing football? His eyes widen in shock. "Of course, I play it every day!" He watches it, too. Not obsessively – only if it's a "good" game – and he says football is on his mind all the time. He had no idols growing up, but now looks at central defenders of the past like Paolo Maldini and Cannavaro.
The last time Ajax were in the UEFA Champions League, in 2005/06, they were drawn in the same group as Arsenal, Vermaelen playing in both games. Has he dreamed of lifting the trophy?
"In the past, no. But when I came to Arsenal, the boss talked of the club's ambition – winning the title and the Champions League. That's new for me. At Ajax, we wanted to play in the Champions League, but spoke only of winning the title. It wasn't realistic to talk of winning the Champions League. It's strange for me to hear, but yes, playing here I can dream of that."
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