Saturday, June 10, 2023

Organs of Leadership

In England, we have a tendency to lionise captaincy. Most cultures are informed by the mythology that surrounds them, literal myths, in the storied sense, have an enormous impact on native cultures. In England, our sporting culture is very much reared on tales of individualism.

Figures like Bobby Moore, Tony Adams, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard are very appealing in the way that stories in English football have been told. In 2015, Scott Murray wrote an essay in the Blizzard touching on this entitled ‘How Roy Race Ruined English Football’ (audio version of that essay is available here and highly recommended).

In the essay, Murray, slightly mischievously, points a finger of blame at the very popular comic ‘Roy of the Rovers’, set around the fictional striker Roy Race and his team Melchester Rovers, for contaminating some of the values of English football. Race is presented as a one-man tour de force single handedly propelling Rovers to the top of the English game via some absurdist story arcs.

Murray also explores some of the xenophobic, insular nature of the comics which, he reasons, had a malign influence on the way that English football culture was presented through the prism of the magnetic individual with an added mistrust of continental football cultures tossed in.

This is popularised through the very British perception of what a captain should be and, as Arsenal fans, figures like Frank McLintock and Tony Adams, inspirational sergeant major types, have influenced that perception.

Nowadays, of course, football teams are much more likely to talk about leadership as a shared responsibility. Rather than one man dragging his team through the trenches, leadership is often presented by coaches as a collective effort. Though only one player can wear the armband, it’s common now for teams to appoint ‘leadership groups.’

For Arsenal, Arteta’s publicly ‘appointed’ leadership group consists of Martin Odegaard, the appointed captain, Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Jesus. In reality, a form of leadership is expected of every player. However, these three individuals all bring different textures of captaincy.

Odegaard, who wears the armband, is the team’s ‘technical leader.’ Arsene Wenger used this phrase to describe various players over the years, he used it to talk about Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mesut Ozil. Odegaard is, effectively, the team’s brain, the on-field coach.

Even before taking the armband full-time last summer, Odegaard was often the player ushered over to the sidelines to receive and redistribute tactical instructions to the team during matches. It is clear that Arteta believes that the Norwegian has a level of tactical and technical IQ that places him on something of a plinth within the squad.

I am certain there are other strings to Odegaard’s leadership bow that are concealed from us- how he conducts himself in training and the dressing room for example. He has also gotten more comfortable with intangible elements like conducting the crowd, often swirling an arm towards the seats to encourage and cajole the supporters during lulls in noise.

Odegaard also leads the team’s press and there are fewer players that work harder in an off the ball sense. You rarely see him standing still, so it would be inaccurate to paint him simply as the smartest guy in the room (though that is still quite the compliment), he is very far from bloodless.

Then we have Gabriel Jesus, immediately appointed to the leadership group upon arrival. Jesus is a relatively quiet and humble personality; but it is not difficult to appreciate the traits Arteta really values in the Brazilian when it comes to setting an example to his teammates.

Sometimes a comment from a coach will really stick in my brain and that was the case after Jesus’ cameo from the bench in a Europa League group stage match against Bodo / Glimt at the Emirates. The game was easy and the team was starting to take it easy too.

Jesus entered the fray as a substitute with the score at 2-0 and powered his way past two defenders to lay on a tap-in for Fabio Vieira to make it 3-0 on 84 minutes. It was clear that Arteta was irked by the lack of intensity that had seeped into a game that was wilting under the lights.

Arteta pointed to the seriousness and intensity Jesus’ cameo introduced to a team that had begun to push its food around the plate. “He has won everything in the last five years, imagine what the rest have to do, so follow him.” That is why Gabriel Jesus is in the leadership group.

Again, I am struck by a comment Pep Guardiola made about Jesus upon his departure from Manchester City. “If he plays for five minutes, he gives you the best five minutes of his whole life.” Jesus is not really there to organise, give dressing room speeches or imprint the technical IQ of the team, he is an exemplar of the intensity Arteta demands from his team. If Odegaard is the brain, Jesus is the lungs.

Then we come to Granit Xhaka, who we would associate with the more ‘traditional’ elements of leadership. Xhaka is the big brother of the team, the first on the scene when things get a bit ‘handsy’, the player that organises the team huddle whenever a goal is scored- the dependable and indefatigable pillar.

The irony is that Xhaka used to be the technical leader of the team, prior to the arrivals of Partey and Odegaard and that responsibility, on top of being the overall captain in Unai Emery’s soup of a team, proved to be too much for the Swiss. He has been able to focus on being the senior figure in a more intangible sense.

In August, I visited London Colney as part of the welcoming committee for Rafaelle, Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Lotte Wubben-Moy upon their return to training having won their respective continental trophies during the summer. I was part of a party who, clearly, are not known or recognised by the playing and technical staff of the men’s team, who were in attendance.

Stood slightly awkwardly in a rabble to the side of the men’s staff, Xhaka approached myself and the other external guests who had been invited. He shook every one of us by the hand, looked us in the eye and said, ‘good morning.’ He had no idea who we were or why we were there. But he instantly took it upon himself to execute this simple but effective pleasantry.

It was a small gesture; but it gave me the idea that Xhaka is clearly a senior figure in the dressing room and around the club and somebody who takes seriously what it means to represent Arsenal. That’s what I mean by him being the leader in the more traditional, intangible sense, someone who is looked up to and relishes that responsibility. He is the heart of the team.

Clearly, leadership throughout the team and the squad does not begin and end with these three individuals. Alex Zinchenko could reasonably claim to represent the brain, the heart and the lungs of the team at different junctures, as can Bukayo Saka. Gabriel and Ramsdale are key ventricles in the heart of the team, Thomas Partey forms at least one of the lobes of the team’s shared brain. Martinelli might be its legs.

However, as we have moved through the season, you can see the different pillars the three identified senior leaders bring to the squad, on the pitch, in the dressing room and on the training ground. Arsenal will surely need every vital leadership organ as they navigate a nerve shredding season climax.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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