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Sad Truth: The ‘Leader’ Arsenal Seeks May Not Even Exist

During the thrashing at Bayern, a commentator remarked on the lack of leadership in the Arsenal squad – something we’re all well familiar with – as he rightly pointed out there was no one on the field who was willing to calm the players down or ensure Arsenal maintained their structure; which they had done till Kos went off.  No, I’m not linking structured off-the-ball midfield to Kos and that may be another pondering for another day.

One of the main criticisms, among several, of Wenger has been that he never brought in any leaders post-Vieira; or post-Henry if you want to stretch it.  Some say Adams was the last true leader at the Arsenal.  Another criticism of Wenger is that his appointments post-Henry or post-Vieira if you wish, have been misplaced.  You can read Dave’s poem to know what I mean.

So the question is “why?”

Why has Wenger not been able to find another leader?

Not since these 2

Fans, commentators, pundits all have their views and the commonality in those views is that Arsenal lack an on-field leader who can drive the team when the going is tough.  The other commonality is that allusions are made to Vieira or Adams for Arsenal, Gerrard for Liverpool, Terry for Chelsea, Keane for United as the archetype of a great leader.

However, is leadership really that simple?

We can try to understand the leadership dynamic from various angles:

  1. Type of leaders
  2. Leadership Expectations and Acceptance
  3. Player demographics/psychographics

Exploring the above three will help shed light on where fans, commentators, pundits are coming from when they talk about leadership and whether or not we need to re-evaluate our ideas of a leader.

The three angles are intertwined in a way; leadership expectations and acceptance vary depending on type of leaders and also on player demographics and/or psychographics.  So I’m wracking my brain here trying to figure out how to go about this!

Let’s address the simple part first; types of leaders!

The Appointed Leader

Not sure if it’s the correct term because appointment of a leader can be done on any basis.  Here I’m talking about someone, totally unexpected, is appointed a leader of a team.  Unexpected because s/he may not have the merit whether in terms of achievement, or capabilities, or prior status within a team – to name a few!

William Gallas was one such appointment.  Coming from a rival team, who knows how much rapport he had with the players, barely any time spent at Arsenal compared to the likes of Silva.  Nothing really warranted his appointment except his seniority in football generally.

These sort of leaders are generally the most difficult to accept.  They are met with a lot of resistance especially by other people who may have felt they should be the leader or someone else should be a leader.  So, any behaviour which is seen as negative will only exacerbate any ill feelings towards the leader and will be more difficult for the leader to achieve his/her goals.

Leadership Through Succession

Organizations usually have succession plans in place for leadership so any one promoted to such a position is generally accepted because the buy-in is there.  This also applies to monarchy but that’s a different area altogether!

Generally, if a football club has appointed a vice-captain, it would be expected that he would be the next captain if the time came.

Leadership Through Merit

The term speaks for itself.  However, what becomes debatable is what is being merited?  In football, is it performances on the field?  Is it performances plus on-pitch leadership.  Is it just on-pitch leadership?

With on-pitch leadership the question becomes what is on-pitch leadership?  Is it pointing and shouting a la Flamini?  Is it ability to calm and organize the team?  Is it grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck?  Is it all three?  Or is it more subtle like something Dougie, from our GunnersTown team has suggested here?

Merit is usually more accepted by people but only if the right attribute(s) is/are merited.  The “right attribute(s)” is subjective as well because different people will cite different attributes as the desired one in a leader.

In organizations you will hear plenty of people questioning leadership-role appointments because they have no idea what was merited when a certain appointment is made.  As Gooners, I’m sure the same question popped in our mind when Gallas was appointed or when Wenger stuck with Captains who were injured most of the season.

 

So, although the ideal situation is to appoint a leader who merits the position, it is key to understand what is merited by those who are to be led.

Leadership Acceptance and The New Generation of Players

The other half of the leadership equation is acceptance.  If a leader is not accepted by his/her people, then there’s only so much s/he can do to achieve any goal.

The question which I believe is the most important here is:

Have player personalities changed over the last decade that they affect leadership expectations and acceptance?

What do I mean by this?

Well, let’s look back at the archetype leaders always cited by fans, commentators, and pundits.  Apart from being very talented, they were very vocal and had enough aggression in them – the two combined allowed them to exert an influence on their teammates.  However, what we ignore is that the rest of the team was made up of players who could accept that.  Some part of those players’ egos could accept that another player can have a go at them or guide them.  All those players were in the team because of merit; but, they could absorb that style of leadership that we oh so admire.

Those players; however, are from another generation.  Commentators and pundits are from the same generation.  There is a certain work ethic, attitude, and perception on things within that generation.

Moreover, the team spirit is there because all have accepted one another regardless of shortcomings so the willingness to listen to another is higher.  Wenger’s management style driven by empowerment suits a group of players like this because they believe they are all answerable to each other.

However, player personalities have changed over the last decade as that generation has slowly retired and the millennials are in; well, they have been in for a decade but they make up greater parts of teams now.

So?  How does that matter?

In my humble opinion, it does.  You now have players with a different egos and different levels of sociability.  Egos may be a bit more inflated, sociability may be a little less.  Millennials are often branded with having a great sense of entitlement but that’s a whole other debate.

It’s a generation more willing to point a finger, question back, and believe themselves to be right i.e. not listen to other.  No, not necessarily at the manager, but at each other.  For example, for every bit of brilliance in Sanchez, Ozil may think he holds onto the ball too long, Giroud may think half his crosses don’t beat the first man but why talk to him about?  He probably wouldn’t listen and point a finger back.  Theo may believe he’s not played in behind the defence enough considering the amount of runs he makes.  Who will listen to who and why?

This generation is fully capable of making noise, whining; but, who is it for?  I referred to self-entitlement earlier, is it for themselves?  Team togetherness just may have become more difficult to achieve with the new generation; appointing a leader a lot more tricky.  It’s easy to appoint the most senior-member of a team as a leader but how acceptable is the shouting and imposing, from a peer, to this generation?  How acceptable is it for a peer to tell them how to do their job?

Maybe there’s an additional reason why hands-on managers like Mourinho, Klopp, Guardiola, Conte, are successful – apart from tactics I mean – because they are the acceptable authority figure.  None of these managers actually have those players who are typically considered as leaders on the field.  Those players respond to the manager.  Orders coming from the manager are acceptable.

Does that mean that the Arsenal players don’t respond to Wenger?  No.  Wenger empowers, they play accordingly.  Wenger occasionally gives orders from the touchline and when he does, players heed.

Should Wenger change his style of management?  He just may have to with this generation.  Or, somehow, get players to understand each other better, not only as footballers but as human beings.  Get players to subside their egos to some extent.  I feel that most our players have subsided their ego for the greater good but all need to be at the same level.  I say all because that ensures there’s no hesitancy on anyone’s part towards any player.  Furthermore,  that level of respect for each other and each other’s strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses needs to be there.

That respect and understanding will translate onto the pitch; it may improve us defensively as there will be more urgency to help a teammate or the team itself.  I’m not saying the players don’t respect and understand each other at all; but, there definitely seems to be room for improvement.

Wrapping It Up

The typical Captain of yesteryear just may have become elusive; not for a lack of personalities out there but perhaps due to a different tolerance level among the new generation of players.

I still believe senior players can still influence players on the field but Wenger cannot pull off another Gallas.  From a leadership perspective, I believe the Zlatan signing by Mourinho was a masterstroke because United because that player has that sort of aura.  However, for Wenger, the challenge would be to find a Zlatan – senior, achieved it all, not from a rival, talented, and from a generation that is more sociable and can gel with the boys while maintaining that respect.  I believe such players are in short supply.  Zlatan isn’t even Captain but players would definitely respond to him.

Masterstroke

Wenger can be faulted for bringing in relatively mellow personalities; I mean that’s fine but you need a mix.  Sanchez is not mellow, but, his approach leaves a lot to be desired.  You have a squad of players that will grow old together; none of them may ever accept each other as Captain, or none of them would fit that archetypal Captain mould.  Wilshere is not a mellow personality and he seems to have a bit of the older generation in him; he just might be the one in the future.  That’s the future though; for now, it’s a problem.

Wenger either needs to become more hands-on or improve the collective spirit of the team.  The latter cannot be done dictatorially but can be done.

Of course, for all I know, I could be wrong about all this but I certainly felt it’s a valid hypothesis!  Your views and comments are always appreciated, I always reply 🙂

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6 Responses to Sad Truth: The ‘Leader’ Arsenal Seeks May Not Even Exist

  1. Avinash April 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    I absolutely love this article and so am taking all the pain to reply. According to me more important than a leader is team cohesiveness which is rightly pointed out by you that the players should respect each others weakness and help each other out. Right now Arsenal is 11 talented individuals on the pitch but not a team with 11 players taking one for each other.

    • Omar Hasan Khan April 6, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

      Hi Avinash,

      Firstly, I’m glad you enjoyed reading this!

      Absolutely agree with you, absolute cohesiveness seems to be missing.

      Who knows, maybe the last two results may be a result of some sort of a development in the cohesiveness department, they make it seem like that but I’m not entirely convinced yet.

  2. robbiefouler April 6, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

    llori, alderweild, vertonghen, dier, kane, errikson, wanyama, dembele…a team filled with natural leaders, and never without a captain, from a concerned lfc fan considering the same conundrum with our club, answer i came to = its without doubt the players, look at spurs

    • Omar Hasan Khan April 6, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

      Hi,

      Firstly, thanks for the read.

      I believe Spurs may have the right mix of players in terms of personalities, doesn’t necessarily make all of them natural leaders but the cohesiveness seems to be there.

      I’ll admit I haven’t watched much of Liverpool this season but from the little I’ve seen, the problems may be similar to ours – no leader to steady the ship or the complete cohesiveness.

  3. MarblehallsTV April 9, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

    Chelsea, even fucking SPURS seem to be doing OK. I think it’s not as much leaders on the pitch, but the tactical acumen,which to be fair has always been lacking, but now has been more exposed.

    • Omar Hasan Khan April 10, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

      Oh I’m not saying leadership is the only issue, just expanding on the issue in particular.

      Tactical acumen is an issue but it’s debatable as well.

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