Football Features

What Arsenal’s recurring dilemma could reveal about the captain’s role in modern football

By Ed Capstick

Published: 16:17, 5 January 2022 | Updated: 12:02, 7 January 2022

Turn a television to BBC One any given Saturday between the hours of 10.30pm and midnight, circa 2007-2014, and you would likely hear a number of things.

Linguistic milestones of the time; enough to orient you, incontrovertibly, in peak Barclays-era England. Someone, Mark Lawrenson or Alan Hansen, would say something about Stoke posing a physical test, a glint in the eye providing the subtext… and the Fancy Dans of Club X can’t cope with it.

There would be some doom-mongering about Sunderland getting dragged into a relegation battle, and a ferocious strike from Morten Gamst Pedersen. Wigan punching above their weight. Shambolic defending from Titus Bramble. And, almost certainly, the following words: “Arsenal may play nice stuff, but they lack leaders on the pitch.”

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You don’t hear it so much anymore. There is fresh blood in the studios, and analysis has generally moved onto more tangible concerns, like actual tactics and stuff. Besides, there is a limit to how long you can repeat yourself live on television each week, before people stop listening. Just ask Professor Chris Whitty.

Yet, you may think it time to revive this particular observation. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being stripped of the armband after his latest disciplinary breach, joining a long and ignominious list of disgraced Arsenal skippers, they currently do, quite literally, lack a leader on the pitch. Yes, Alexandre Lacazette is the temporary incumbent; and yes, he seems a decent candidate. But with Arsenal unwilling to offer more than a year-long extension to his contract – and sensibly, too, given how longer contracts for thirty-somethings have worked out in recent years – it appears as though he won’t be there for long. On the face of it then, partying just like it’s 2009, Arsenal are a club in the midst of a leadership crisis.

However, they also aren’t. Paradoxically, they actually kind of have something of an excess.

Because, as sobering a truth as it may be to contemplate, we are living in a post-John Terry (Captain, Leader, Legend) world. Just as Winston Churchill would struggle with the nuances of contemporary discussions around race and gender, the captains of old no longer have much of a place in the modern game. The gnarled, grizzled, bloodied centre-back, blocking the ball with his face before spitting out a tooth and barking some incomprehensible instructions to terrified team-mates is an image that belongs to a bygone era. Leadership now is something altogether calmer and cooler. Based around balance, level-headedness, and examples set by off-the-pitch conduct.

It is worth stating that this has always been important. It is not like the leaders of old were not impeccable role models for young players to follow; yet, the parameters here have changed. Saying the right media-facing things, living a vice-free existence, and being a generally nice guy – Jordan Henderson and Connor Coady leap out as examples here – seem to be the qualities that managers now look for in their leaders. For all the merits of a John Terry, a Roy Keane or a Tony Adams, these are not them.

The likes of Martin Ødegaard, however, have them in abundance. When asked about his promotion to skipper the Norwegian national side at the tender age of 22 last year, Mikel Arteta was not surprised.

“He’s got this personality,” he said of Ødegaard.

“He’s a really humble and easy going guy, but at the same time, he’s very, very professional and very dedicated. He is more than prepared to take that role. I’ve been very impressed by his human qualities.”

While we are unlikely to see Ødegaard barracking his pals for half-arsing a challenge, or bleeding Terry Butcher-esque through a bandage, Arsenal have the very template of the modern captain: decent, humble, hardworking. And, what’s more, they have others.

In Ghana vice-captain Thomas Partey, Arsenal have someone who Arteta has described as “a special character [who] makes players better around him.” According to his boss, “it’s not just about his talent, it’s about who he is as a person.”

Similar to Ødegaard then, Partey – who has his own charitable foundation back in Ghana – is no tubthumping tough-nut, but is someone who exudes leadership as it is in the modern era. When footballers are spokespeople and moral guardians. Holders to account of governments, even.

Yet, for all this, the eulogies to the old guard may be slightly premature. While the totemic centre-half who you’d follow into battle is in some sense extinct, there are remnants of him that live on. There is space, even in this age of Instagram and VAR, for the leadership qualities of the hard man. And in Kieran Tierney, Arsenal have someone who has these and more.

First named Celtic skipper at only 19, Tierney not only has that much-vaunted humility – famously turning up to a game with his gear in a Tesco bag – but is also the kind of aggressive leader that Messrs Hansen and Lawrenson used to crave. Here is a man who has had to be told by his team-mates to tone down the ferocity in training, and who habitually takes that aggression into games. Against Leeds last season, for instance, he angrily confronted Ezgjan Alioski over his role in Nicolas Pepe’s sending off, earning plaudits from Ian Wright in the process.

“In the way he reacted at the end of the game he’s a future captain of our club,” said Wright.

As of yet, he isn’t. But in the modern game, does it really matter? The approach of many appears to suggest that it doesn’t. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola simply allow the players to vote for their captain, while Gareth Southgate’s England opt for a cricket-style “leadership group” around Harry Kane. And in absence of a single captain, Arsenal have this too. Between the calming presence of Lacazette, the decency and professionalism of Ødegaard and Partey, the fire and steel of Tierney, and even Aaron Ramsdale making lots of noise between the sticks (which is apparently important), the Gunners have a core group of leaders.

Up to a point, this is working. Contractual issues aside, theirs appears to be a harmonious squad who enjoy playing together. Their progress on the pitch speaks of productive work off it, and there is a degree of balance and level-headedness to Arteta’s project that has been absent in recent times. However, up to a point is the operative phrase here.

Watching Arsenal play excellently against Manchester City on New Year’s Day, only to give away a penalty, get a man sent off, and have the game snatched from them in the dying moments, it was impossible to escape the nostalgia to it all. In may ways this was the rudderless Arsenal of the peak-Barclays years reincarnate. A side crying out, in those vital moments, for a steadying hand, a commanding presence to its spine.

And it felt illustrative that it was Gabriel, a centre-half, whose brainless dismissal was the catalyst for collapse here. In this side, one particular area of deficiency remains. While our antique notions of the captain may well be long gone, stick Tony Adams in that side and a tenner says you get a different result. Because, really, while Arsenal may play some nice stuff, they do still lack leaders on the pitch.