Monday, 18 July 2011

Leading the Line

Upon arrival at the Emirates Stadium, fans, players and opposition will be greeted by Arsenal's elite. Plastered on the framing's of the ground stand thirty-two of Arsenal's previous legends, acting as a statement of what Arsenal Football Club represents. Among these stand Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams and Pat Rice. These names should be familiar to current manager Arsene Wenger, Patrick and Tony having captained two of his great sides and featured so frequently under his tenure. Meanwhile, Pat sits next to him in the dugout, assistant to the Frenchman. These three stand strong in the list of thirty-two, influential leaders who've stamped their authority on teams under their leadership. Forgetting the fact that they stand amongst a crowd including Ray Parlour, you can truly understand the importance their captaincy had to their own Arsenal side.

Pat's importance to the side wasn't just present whilst he held the captain's armband. Previous to taking on the role in 1977,  the Northern Irishman was right back for Arsenal throughout the 1970's, whilst also holding a central midfield role throughout the 1970/71 Double winning season. Having played in five FA Cup finals and remaining the longest serving member of the first Arsenal Double-Winning campaign, Rice's career is embedded within Arsenal's illustrious history. After being made captain in '77, he led the club by example, a speaker on the field, confident in his role as captain and as player. His determination and ability flooded through the rest of his team, and together they lifted the 1979 FA Cup Final, sandwiched between final defeats in '78 and '80. His contributions as Arsenal captain also saw European recognition after leading the club to the final of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup final, bitterly losing on penalties to Valencia. His ambition to win and lead his team forward shone through, and saw him stand out as one of Arsenal's most influential players in their history. Despite leading out more talented players under his captaincy, he was still seen as a leader of the group, commanding respect from some of the best players Arsenal have had the grace of having.

'Mr. Arsenal'

Tony Adams, often referred to as Mr. Arsenal, became Arsenal captain in 1988 aged just 21. Under his leadership, Arsenal lifted nine major trophies, of which include four league titles in three separate decades. Despite his well documented troubles with Alcohol, his performances on the pitch didn't suffer. His ability to lead the defensive line and is noted as Arsenal's most successful captain of all time. In no small part is this due to Arsene Wenger. Upon arrival in '96, Wenger stood by the troubled captain as he admitted to being an alcoholic. After treatment, Adams was emerging as a gentle character and was often linked back in the media to his hobby of playing the piano. His gentle touch wasn't present on the field, though, as he stood fierce against some of the best strikers in the world. His time at Arsenal with the armband saw Tony lift the Cup Winners' Cup and FA League Cup on one occasion, whilst the FA Cup lay firm in his grip thrice.

Following on from Adams was Patrick Vieira, Wenger's first own chosen captain of Arsenal. Also noted as the first foreign captain Arsenal had, Vieira was seen as the obvious choice to replace Adams following his retirement in 2002. His previous experience of leading the line for Cannes as a teenager acted as the shining light which highlighted him ahead of the other candidates. Despite not having many trophies to his name under his captaincy, Vieira can still be proud of his time with the armband, having led Arsenal to an unbeaten season in 2003/04 which saw the Gunners take the Premier League title. That team, known as The Invincibles, relied on Vieira's steel and guidance in the centre of the park to see out some gritty games. His sheer presence often dragged Arsenal across the finish line in games, having saved them from potential loss during that season. Patrick also led Arsenal to two FA Cup wins during his time as captain, and is thought of as one of the best midfielders to ever grace the Premier League.

Since his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger will have created a special bond with all three. He understands the influence they have had over critical periods in the Gunners history, and will have befriended all three. It therefore begs the question as to why Wenger cannot seem to grasp the importance of having such a reliable leader in the heart of his current team. It is not a simple coincidence that Arsenal's trophy cabinet has become a year-on-year rent out for spiders and their cobwebs since Vieira's departure from Arsenal, their last captain of noted quality.

Under the current regime, Césc Fabregas is the man deemed worthy of the captain's armband, with Robin Van Persie in reserve. Césc's own future at the Emirates Stadium is in doubt, after speculation linking him to Champions League winners Barcelona reached it's third year on top of the charts of footballing saga's. Barca manager Pep Guardiola deems him worthy of replacing the slowly aging Xavi from what can only be considered as one of the most impressive midfield's of all time, an appreciative statement to say the least. A glowing reference from one of the most successful young managers in the world today is enough to turn any head. Yet, adding to the equation Césc's own affectionate feeling towards the Catalans, as well as the possibility of playing alongside some of the best players of the current generation, and Arsene has a conclusive problem; his current captain's eye has been wandering for a while.

As a player, this is an incredible blow to Arsene Wenger. It's highly unlikely that, should Fabregas leave, Arsenal will be able to replace him with anyone of similar quality. As a captain, however, it's not that much of a loss. The ongoing saga has left Fabregas lacking any sighted passion for Arsenal remaining on his sleeve, something that should be a given if you are to remain as captain. Césc's ability to play can not be questioned, but as far as leading a team through difficult situations, he's not a man you really turn to hoping for a miracle. I doubt I'd even consider him as a Phone A Friend option.

Cesc's leadership is under constant scrutiny.

Year on year, Arsenal have been the classic target for the national press to question and scrutinise against. A common sight within the top four, yet unable to hold any silverware. Doubts towards their defence and especially their goalkeeper have remained in the spotlight, often shadowing the need for a natural leader on the field. Maybe Arsene is riding his luck on this issue. After having such prominent and proud leaders in their history, Arsenal are left without anyone who you'd look at thinking 'he's a Gunner, alright'.  Had it not been for a leaky defence and questionable goalkeeping that seems stuck on repeat, Wenger would surely be sweating from the heat of the media as well as his own fans for not having brought in a new Adams or Vieira.

In Thomas Vermaelan and Laurent Koscielny, Arsene has his favoured duo in defence; Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci acting as competition. Traditionally, a captain occupies a defensive role, where leadership is often needed. This dates back throughout the game where scrutiny has been targeted. As a defender, you are more vulnerable to criticism for a mistake than you are as a striker. Cost your team a goal and you've potentially cost yourself the game. Miss a chance as a striker, though, and the score is unaffected. An unfair balance rooted within the game, but one that demands a more strong-minded and outspoken individual at the back. This attribute is the bloodline for great captains. Arsenal lack that bloodline. Whilst Vermaelan is one of the better defenders in the division, his capability at organising isn't brilliant. Squillaci and Koscielny seem to spend more time with their chins touching the floor than facing forwards with any venom in their eyes. There's no passion, no heart and no leadership in Arsenal's most disturbing position.

Kill two birds with one stone, then. Arsenal remain in the market for a central defender, after constant links to Gary Cahill and Scott Dann. Both are promising young defenders who have performed well for their sides. Dann's absence towards the end of last campaign remains the knockout blow to Birmingham's eventual relegation to the Championship. Normally both could be seen as potentially promising signings for Arsene Wenger. Not anymore, though. Too long, the Arsenal faithful have had to watch on as their side lack leadership, and ultimately, without a trophy. Wenger is accused of often filling round holes with square pegs. It's worth note that the captaincy hole isn't even being filled, a vacant gap which too often the opposition will exploit. When Arsenal get down and gritty, they struggle against even the mediocre of the division. That presence on the field has been lacking for too long, and for Wenger to remain in his position, a talisman leader is required.

Looking back to the aforementioned Fabregas, though, and there-in lies Wenger's true problem. To lose his current captain would be a knockout blow before a ball has even been kicked. His intentions to keep Samir Nasri and Césc Fabregas has been clear, but to achieve the almost impossible requires every trick up his sleeve. Fabregas' captaincy may remain as the cherry on top to keep Césc content in North London. In offering, though, Arsene maybe signing another season off without that bite, that spirit, that determination, that has distanced his side from silverware for too long. The time will soon come where enough is enough, and Arsene will be sent packing. It's catch 22, and it's ready to make Wenger buckle.


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