Here are the three qualities any captain should have, in my humble opinion.
I am quite sure you already know where I’m going with this piece, so let’s cut the introduction short: why are the Arsenal missing proper captain material so badly, recently? Leadership was never an issue during Arsène Wenger’s early years, mainly because the old guard was spoiled with charisma and new players coming in had perfect examples of how an Arsenal captain looks like.
The appointment of Patrick Vieira as Tony Adams’ successor in 2002 seemed natural and logical, although that team also had players like David Seaman, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp who could have claimed the armband, and so was Thierry Henry’s once Pat left for Juventus. Despite the former Monaco man quieter style compared to his fellow French colleague, Thierry Henry’s hunger, desire and drive were outstanding and made him the perfect fit for the role.
Again, teams led by Henry were not short of proper leaders as Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré, Gilberto Silva and Ashley Cole all grew in stature and could have been named captains, too.
Then, the fall-down started.
When Thierry Henry left, William Gallas was named captain by Arsène Wenger – a rather surprising decision – and then Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie, Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta inherited the armband, none of them being the man for the job, although for different reasons. The Spaniard looked the most promising of our captains but ended up forcing a move back to Barcelona, while Robin van Persie crumbled under the pressure of the little kid inside’s endless screaming and left for Manchester United; Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta were good characters but had their Arsenal careers hampered by injuries, with none of them able to cement a place in the team for long enough.
Now that Mikel Arteta has retired, we’re back to square one: who will be our next captain?
I don’t know. There’s not one player I would give the armband straight away.
If in the past Arsène Wenger could have easily picked a name from a hat and would have had a marvellous captain, nowadays we would need a task force of experts to find one.
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In a possible line-up composed of Čech, Bellerín, Gabriel, Koscielny, Xhaka, Cazorla, Alexis, Özil, Ramsey and Giroud, it is rather difficult to name the captain as none of our players possess the three mandatory qualities aforementioned.
While Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Gabriel or Olivier Giroud never showed tangible leadership skills, Granit Xhaka has just arrived (but could definitely be one for the future) and Hector Bellerín is too young; finally, in our most-probable starting XI we only have Petr Čech, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla as candidates for the role.
Once again, we could turn to a non-playing captain – or rather team-player captain – and appoint Per Mertesacker, which would probably make sense but personally I don’t want to end with an off-the-field captain for the fifth season in a row; I want someone leading the team out week in, week out, a true captain who would be the first name on the team sheet and whose place in the team is never in doubt (where did I hear this phrase, again?).
If Per Mertesacker is not this man, then another one should be appointed captain in spite of the natural succession line.
Of the four names left, Nacho Monreal is by far the most consistent of our players and the finest left-back in the league, but it seems to me that he lacks authority and leadership to be our man; same for Santi Cazorla, probably the most skilled of our players but not the most combative and not the man you want to have alongside you when confronting an opponent; he can be the technical leader that Arsène Wenger cherishes but not our skipper.
Last but not least, Laurent Koscielny and Petr Čech, probably the most-fitted to embrace the new role within the team: the French defender has been around for six years now and is the only centre-back guaranteed of a starting place in the team, he’s a tough guy and never hides from confrontation – however he’s been referred to as “not the best communicator”, here and there; Petr Čech is one of the best and more experienced players of the entire league, he’s the first-choice goalkeeper at the Club and is very good at commanding his back line and directing the traffic in the penalty area – which would make him the best choice, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s entering his second season at the Club only, he’s a goalkeeper and he’s 34 already.
A decade ago, Arsène Wenger handed their debuts to a crop of youngsters in view of building the Arsenal of the future: Philippe Senderos, Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie and Jack Wilshere were the names tipped to form the spine of the team for the following ten years or so, with any of them picking the armband once ready.
Fast-forward a couple of seasons and three of them are no longer at the Club, while the fourth cannot stay fit and make his own place within the team.
The youth project backfired and so did the “British Core” one, Arsène Wenger failed to build a smooth succession line along the years and now we’re left without guidance on the pitch.
The manager loves to repeat that our team is full of leaders but recent years have brutally exposed the difference between what was a team actually full of leaders (Vieira, Henry, Lauren, Lehmann, Campbell, Gilberto Silva, Kolo Touré, Dennis Bergkamp) and the current one – where everyone’s a leader because none one really is one.
Arsène Wenger now has a very last chance to bring in players who could lead the Club in five years’ time, while handing the armband to either Petr Čech or Laurent Koscielny; Granit Xhaka’s arrival is an encouraging sign, I hope more strong personalities will follow the Swiss midfielder in joining the good part of London.