Few topics of conversation inspire conversation among football fans like captaincy does. It has proved to be a contentious topic for Arsenal fans in particular in recent years where a succession of club captains have relinquished the role in controversial circumstances.
In 2002, Tony Adams signed off from the role with his own testimonial, days after securing a domestic double following 15 years of hogging the armband. That was always going to create an unrealistic standard for those that followed. In hindsight, Patrick Vieira is remembered fondly as a captain, despite the fact that the armband was at least partially a sop to separate him from his Madrid travel brochures.
Likewise, Thierry Henry was assigned the armband as a carrot amid interest from Barcelona. It worked for a little while but while a terrific player, he didn’t really make much of a captain. William Gallas’ short spell with the captaincy was a disaster and he was unceremoniously relieved of the duty by the famously anti-confrontational Arsene Wenger after one whinge to the French press too many.
Gallas was replaced by Cesc Fabregas, who I would argue was a qualified success as the skipper, even if he did eventually agitate for a move to Barcelona. Robin van Persie was a good captain but nobody cares now because he fucked off to Manchester United. Thomas Vermaelen lost his place in the team almost as soon as he was appointed, Arteta and Mertesacker were good choices- even if injury meant their final seasons in situ were ceremonial. The fact that both currently hold leadership positions at the club is testament to that.
Koscielny was a good choice as a captain until he also felt the need to force his way out of the club, we don’t need to re-litigate what happened with Granit Xhaka and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was given the Gallas treatment with the armband before being effectively kicked out of the club in January.
In short, it’s proved to be a poisoned chalice and it’s probably no wonder that Arteta took around six weeks to confirm Alex Lacazette as the current captain. Unai Emery treated the decision to appoint a captain like some kind of horrendous hostage dilemma before clumsily falling on Xhaka well into the 2019-20 season.
Emery’s administrative bumbling at least contributed to the powder keg situation that eventually saw Xhaka perform his Incredible Hulk impression in front of the Emirates crowd. Who knows, maybe the Arsenal armband does bear a witches curse? Lacazette currently holds the cursed appendage but we all know that he is leaving in the summer anyway.
This interim appointment buys Arteta time before making a more long-term decision in the summer. This is a group that is still growing together, it’s relatively young in terms of age but it’s also very young in its life together. I imagine that Arteta will use the next couple of months to see who really emerge as the leaders of this group.
The team is involved in a chase for Champions League qualification, the pressure is on as we reach the business end of the season and anyone who ends up booting an advertising hoarding and sulking in the centre circle when times get tough need not apply. I have been “ratioed” many times on Twitter for suggesting that captaincy doesn’t matter.
I do think there is a very British obsession with who wears the cloth and calls the coin toss. In English football, we have grown up with tales of rugged individualism as a means of triumph. A few years ago, Scott Murray wrote a very good article in the Blizzard called ‘How Roy Race Ruined English Football’ (audio version available here). Murray’s contention is that the Roy of the Rovers comics distorted the extent to which Brits view footballing success through the prism of individual feats.
We have been taught to believe that Bobby Moore powered England to the World Cup in 1966, that Liverpool’s unlikely 2005 Champions League Final win was down to the mystic force of Steven Gerrard, Manchester United’s 1999 triumph in the same competition is often framed around Roy Keane’s heroic performance in the semi-final in Turin.
There is a grain of truth in all of these stories, though all hyperbolised. In truth, all they show is the importance of leadership rather than captaincy itself. Tony Adams rarely captained England during his international career but it didn’t dilute his innate sense of leadership. Leadership really should be shared, ideally, too.
Patrick Vieira is remembered as a great Arsenal captain because he captained possibly the greatest Gunners side of all time. I don’t think a team featuring Bergkamp, Henry, Campbell, Cole, Lauren, Gilberto, Lehmann, Pires and Parlour needed their meat cutting for them in a leadership respect.
In lieu of once in a generation types like Tony Adams, I would say shared leadership is more important than ever (even Adams played alongside Bould, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Seaman, whom I am sure didn’t really need much marshalling). On reflection, maybe it’s too far to say that captaincy doesn’t matter at all.
I think it can matter when you get it wrong, as Arsenal did with Gallas, for example. Some players do consider it an extra pressure and it changes their behaviour. Gallas was largely a very good defender for Arsenal but he looked much better when he didn’t performatively try to look like a leader.
I think a coach needs to think carefully about captaincy because it is a decision you can get wrong. At best, without an Adams type, really you want your captain to be seamless. Nobody was discussing the fact that Arteta hadn’t appointed a full-time captain in December because Arsenal were busy thumping Norwich and Leeds and performing well against Manchester City.
Personally, I think a captain should reflect the group. I am not a fan of the idea of an experienced player appointed to lead a young team, for instance. Too often I think it can make older players more self-conscious about their personality. A natural captain should be ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) and I think giving it to a notably older player can negatively alter the dynamic. I don’t think it really worked with Henry or Aubameyang (even if neither were a disaster in the position).
Cesc Fabregas was not a captain at Chelsea, Barcelona or for Spain. He was never really considered a leader at any of his other clubs. At Arsenal he was and I think it was because he was a reference point and the jewel in the crown of ‘project youth.’ Fabregas was a natural leader for that group and I think that should be very much in Arteta’s thinking as he grooms his next captain.
He seemed to talk up Martin Odegaard’s credentials following Saturday’s win against Brentford and I think that makes plenty of sense. I also think Ben White would be a good candidate for similar reasons, he is a prominent player in the spine of the team and over the season I think we have seen growth in him.
I don’t think Arsenal really need to burden Saka or Smith Rowe with the responsibility, I am sure either would be fine with it but their roles are already quite significant. Ramsdale would probably be fine as well; I know some people don’t like goalkeepers as captains but Spain were skippered by Casillas when they won three tournaments in a row between 2008 and 2012.
The most important thing is that Arsenal have leadership and particularly through the spine of the team. I think they are developing that nicely with Ramsdale, White, Gabriel, Partey and Odegaard- any one of whom would represent a decent choice. I know many Arsenal fans like the idea of Tierney. I am not sure I see leadership of others in him yet, per se, but also don’t think he’d be a bad choice.
In reality, the definition of “decent choice” is ‘does not agitate for a move to a rival / repeatedly piss the manager off / literally toss the armband and tell the fans to fuck off / is consistently selected.’ The appointment does require Arteta to look into the future a little and the character traits of the players he has bought are similarly unassuming, hard-working types.
Arsenal have moved away from the “star model” that has required one or two bona fide stars to elevate the level of the team through their own quality. I think it is credit to the team that Arteta and Edu have built so far that there are plenty of candidates for the captaincy and all of them will probably be seamless- and let us be real here- seamlessness is the aim.