Arsenal captaincy contenders – how can Unai Emery fill the void in his leadership group?
Over the years, Arsenal have had some absolutely immense captains.
The likes of Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Tony Adams all led by example for the Gunners, maintaining the standards among their teammates and becoming incredibly skilled in the art of trophy lifting.
But as we all know, those halcyon days are long gone. The odd FA Cup win aside, Arsenal have underachieved in recent years. And whether it be under Arsene Wenger or Unai Emery, one of the main criticisms levelled at the Gunners is a lack of leadership.
Last year, Emery selected Laurent Koscielny as his main captain, while Petr Cech, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka were all named in his leadership group.
However, Cech has retired, Ramsey is off to Juventus and Ozil’s role remains uncertain.
And now Koscielny has refused to travel on the club’s pre-season tour, leaving Arsenal with a bigger leadership crisis than the Conservative party.
So, as Emery’s thoughts turn to his second season in the Premier League, who could step in as the captain for this Arsenal side – and form part of the Spaniard’s chief lieutenants?
OFFICIAL: Arsenal have confirmed Laurent Koscielny has refused to travel to the US for the club's pre-season tour.
"We are very disappointed by Laurent’s actions, which are against our clear instructions." pic.twitter.com/lKxk6rLyKZ
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) July 11, 2019
The only member of last season’s team of captains who looks nailed on to remain, Xhaka certainly feels like a natural choice to take the armband for Emery.
Sure, the Switzerland international can often be caught in possession – Xhaka lost possession more times (486) than any other Arsenal player in the Premier League last term – and have the most cataclysmic of off-days, but he’s also capable of putting in some of the best all-round midfield performances you’re likely to see in the Premier League.
Last season, Xhaka made three errors leading to shots in the Premier League – only Bernd Leno (6) made more in Emery’s squad – but at the same time, he made the most successful passes (1916) and had the most touches of the ball (2784), sitting well clear of any other Arsenal player and never shirking his responsibility in getting his team up the pitch. Moreover, during Arsenal’s horrendous defensive injury crisis, Xhaka filled in at both centre-back and left-back and was third in the squad for tackles (52) and interceptions (36).
Xhaka is a player who doesn’t let his mistakes damage his confidence and is willing to take possession or put a foot in when things are going against Arsenal and those around him look to hide away. His misgivings could be outweighed by his leadership potential.
During that aforementioned injury crisis, when it seemed like every Arsenal defender would fall foul of some knock or ailment, one man remained fit and ready, plugging gaps right across the backline: Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
The 87-time Greece international is 31 years old now and, having notched up over 400 appearances in Italy, Germany and England – as well as his homeland – has a vast wealth of experience from which to call upon.
During Arsenal’s most difficult spells last season, Sokratis was a quiet bastion of calm and serenity, rarely allowing any situation to fluster him. Sure, he isn’t the sort of captain to go round barking orders and getting in faces but sometimes, in a fragile squad, a quiet word in the ear and an arm around the shoulder can be worth so much more.
Sokratis made more blocks (17) than any other Arsenal player in the Premier League during 2018/19 and while his lack of pace and advancing age doesn’t make him the long-term solution to their defensive troubles, he can galvanise those Emery puts around him, ensuring there will always be calm amongst the storm.
After impressing with Uruguay at the 2018 World Cup, Arsenal parted with a reported £26.4m to secure the services of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria. Since then, he’s arguably been their best player.
Off the ball, the 23-year-old feels like a bit of a throwback to 1980/90s midfielders, going around with that pitbull attitude, crunching into tackles and mixing it up in the middle of the park. In fact, no Arsenal player made more tackles than his 65 in the Premier League last season.
However, he also had the third-highest number of touches (2056) and came fourth in completed passes (1390) among his teammates, showing he’s no mug with the ball at his feet. Furthermore, his show of emotion when leaving the field during Arsenal’s 4-1 Europa League final defeat to Chelsea was a brilliant example of just how much passion Torreira plays with. This just means more to him.
Among their current crop of players, it’s hard to think of one who would give more to the Arsenal cause and although that can be seen as an old cliche, it still goes a long way toward defining captain material.
Nacho Monreal has been with Arsenal since 2013, winning three FA Cups and making 248 appearances for the club to date. If anyone knows what this club is all about and what it needs, it’s him.
Like Sokratis, Monreal is more of a quiet figure than a domineering, bullish character. However, his experience of major tournaments with Spain and trophy wins with Arsenal seem to make him an ideal player to guide the club’s younger stars.
The main sticking point for Monreal is, at 33, just how much is he going to play? He still managed 31 starts across Premier League and Europa League games last season – making more interceptions (20) than any other Arsenal player in the latter tournament – but those totals will only decrease as his years advance.
Monreal is another player whose future is uncertain but if Koscielny does leave the Emirates, with Stephan Lichtsteiner already out of the door, Emery will not be able to afford to lose another defender of his experience. As we’ve seen in Premier League years gone by with the likes of John Terry and Jamie Carragher, the mere presence of an experienced defender in the dressing room can go a long way.
When the chips are down, you want to be able to look at your captain and know that if you give him the ball, he’ll do something with it or, at the very least, keep hold of it.
Alexandre Lacazette notched eight assists from just 31 chances created in the Premier League last season – no Arsenal player managed more – and his partnership with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was invaluable at a time when the Gunners were really struggling for points.
Lacazette ranked sixth for tackles (35) for Arsenal in the Premier League last season – not bad for a striker – and his high defensive work rate makes him perfect for a side which likes to press.
More importantly, it also makes him a brilliant example to those behind him, leading from the front and keeping Arsenal on the offensive. Get it to Lacazette, he’ll make something happen. Lose the ball, and he’ll be the one leading the charge to win it back.
At 28, the Frenchman is now entering his prime and has a wealth of club and international experience which he can pass on to youngsters such as Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson. Lacazette is sure to be one of Emery’s most important generals next season and giving him the armband may just bring the best out of him.
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