“The first captain in this group is Koscielny. Then I tell the players it is Cech, Ramsey, Özil and Xhaka. In my career I want leaders in the team. The representation for every player and in every time in the season [there is] the capacity to do that. Maybe there will be more leaders in the team to show this captaincy, not just in the captain’s group, but these five players are in this possibility to be the captain.”
So said Unai Emery last summer and it’s not an original observation, at this stage, to say that most of that inner circle of captains aren’t the future leaders of Arsenal. Cech is an excellent rolemodel, but lost his place in the team and is now retiring. Koscielny is very much a leader in the example he sets for his team and his organisation of the back line, but Arsenal surely have to pare his workload down.
Aaron Ramsey proved to be a technical leader of the team but he is moving to Juventus. Ramsey produced his best form at the business end of the season- unlike some of his teammates (more on that anon), before his hamstring inevitably gave way. Mesut Özil wore the armband but isn’t really a leader (which is not a criticism, most people aren’t leaders).
Being an introvert doesn’t make Özil unsuited to leadership per se, but he operates on the fringes of a game at the best of times. Besides which, he and the head coach have clashed oftentimes this season and he doesn’t exactly feel like the future of Arsenal Football Club any longer. I don’t think this is entirely his fault, I think, in truth, Özil and Emery just aren’t a good cocktail.
Like many modern managers, Emery has never really operated with a mercurial playmaker, ghosting around the perimeters of the game. He prizes hard running and uses the half spaces to create, either via the full-backs or the inside forwards. Özil’s game is built on finding space, which often means getting away from the action.
There is little point rehashing old ground with regards his contract, which moors the club’s spending power. If a cold war broke out between player and coach over the winter, a kind of ‘hot peace’ has prevailed in the spring, but it looks fragile. With only two assists this season, Arsenal will be keen to try to offload Özil’s salary. Though according Mesut’s agent, the player is not for turning.
When the season arrived at squeaky bum junction, Özil and the second highest earner in the squad, Mkhitaryan, hid in the bogs and waited for the inspector to pass. The team has moved away from them and exiting their wages will be high on the club’s lengthy to do list for the summer. Granit Xhaka was another player named as one of Emery’s trusted lieutenants last summer.
Only Mustafi, Leno and Aubameyang started more Premier League games than Xhaka this season. I admit I have been a fan of Xhaka’s qualities, while conceding that his habitual lapses are incredibly frustrating. At this point, I think I have given up on the idea that an improved tactical setup would see a smarter, less error prone player emerge. This season he has been well protected by Unai Emery’s system, but the brain-dead errors persist. It is surely just an indelible part of his make-up at this point.
His brand of self-destruction would have more of a home in a troubled 1970s rock band. I also wonder if modern football is moving beyond the concept of the deep lying playmaker, the sun around whom all of his colleagues orbit. Immobility is becoming more of a handicap in a league drunk on the lure of the gegenpress.
Spurs have managed Eric Dier out of the team in favour of Moussa Sissoko. Jordan Henderson found minutes easier to come by at Anfield when he convinced Jurgen Klopp he could be a shuffling number 8. Emre Can left Merseyside last summer, to be replaced by the more energetic Fabinho and Naby Keita.
And here is the rub; I think Torreira and Gunedouzi look better when Xhaka isn’t playing. Neither player operates with fixity; both look more at home in a more mobile, fluid structure. Xhaka’s presence is beginning to look a little like a forcefield. James and Andrew have observed many times in the Arsecast Extra this season that Arsenal are dependent on him but perhaps they shouldn’t be.
I think Arsenal’s midfield should evolve more to a modern, fluid 3 man structure that slots into a 433. I also think Maitland-Niles and Iwobi might be interesting options in one of the slightly wider roles within that structure. There was little comfort to take from Manchester City’s cool dissection of Arsenal at the Etihad in February, but I think I saw the future of the Arsenal midfield that day in Guendouzi and Torreira.
I’ve had the impression for a while that Xhaka is a ‘Lilly pad’ player in this project. He does not represent the most urgent boil that needs lancing from this squad, but I have long felt Arsenal would get to him eventually. All of this is to say that Xhaka is not a future leader of this team, which is a shame because on a good day, he really does look like one. If Özil and Mkhitaryan hid in the bogs when the journey got bumpy, Xhaka set himself on fire and tossed himself out of the window.
But… new leaders are emerging in this team in my opinion. Hopefully a better culture can be cultivated around them. Lacazette and Aubameyang have been the team’s shepherds from an attacking perspective. They have produced throughout the season. I think Guendouzi and Torreira don’t have that exalted status yet, but there is the potential at least for them to form the scuttling partnership the midfield needs.
The signs are good that Bernd Leno is emerging as a trustworthy performer in the Arsenal goal. When the bullets start flying, Arsenal have too many players that either duck under a table or swallow a cyanide pill. Leno has not (yet!) shown this level of fragility, he seems like a sturdy enough character who has comfortably taken on the mantle from Petr Cech. Whatever you think of Cech’s Arsenal career, if you’re a goalkeeper ten years his junior, taking over from Cech must be intimidating for a goalie given his standing in the game.
Earlier in the season I wrote that Arsenal fans had entered a kind of existential torpor, because many long serving players had departed and new ones had arrived. As a fanbase we lacked cult heroes. There will be more turnover yet and some of it will be painful as Arsenal move beyond their five anointed captains. In time, a new culture will take hold, with fresh reference points and different leaders.