Arsenal’s captaincy crisis is very real at this most crucial time – but how costly could it be?
Out with the old, in with the new. In some respects, anyway.
One of Unai Emery’s first major decisions as Arsenal manager was to pick a new club captain. Rather than ripping up the past, he upheld a club tradition – albeit a relatively recent one – of naming someone who wouldn’t play.
Laurent Koscielny was picked as the retired Per Mertesacker’s replacement. He has proved a seamless successor in one respect: the injured Frenchman hasn’t featured. Indeed, Arsenal’s club captain, whether Mikel Arteta, Mertesacker or Koscielny, has only started four of their last 144 league games. Before Arteta there was Thomas Vermaelen for two seasons, the latter of which featured in only seven league starts. Only the Ryder Cup has as many non-playing captains as Arsenal.
Given the way that Arteta and Mertesacker have been elevated to coaching roles by Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger respectively, it feels more than a ceremonial position. An influence has clearly been exerted: but off the pitch, rather than on it, in the talismanic manner of Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira.
And yet if nothing has really changed, there is still the sense that, four games into Emery’s reign, Arsenal face a crisis of captaincy.
It is a situation where the Spaniard deserves both sympathy and blame. He inherited imperfect choices and has made questionable decisions. At a time when his team need direction, their on-field captain has been the personification of confusion. Rather than representing the influx of ideas, Petr Cech embodies Arsenal’s awkwardness in adapting to Emery’s ethos.
The goalkeeper’s difficulties in dealing with every backpass, coupled with Emery’s insistence on a new way of playing, makes him look the football equivalent of a pensioner who has spent 50 years playing bingo and is now plunged into a video game. It is a sporting form of cruelty to the elderly.
It’s not just that which makes Cech look a stopgap skipper. There were the six errors that led to league goals last season, an unwanted divisional high that showcased his decline. There is the presence of the £19m recruit Bernd Leno on the bench, a successor waiting for a manager to pull the trigger.
Cech’s place in the Arsenal team feels a misguided attempt at continuity. A display of loyalty to an admirable figure and a statement of evolution when revolution would actually be the pragmatic move.
Take your pick
Not that Cech is Koscielny’s only deputy. Emery managed to be both traditionalist and ultra-modern, subscribing to the age-old theory about the importance of senior pros while being empowering and consultative by naming a leadership group. Namely, a collection of five captains: Koscielny, Cech, Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil.
It reflected the importance of getting a critical mass onside; perhaps it was an attempt to conjure more from the mercurial Ozil and the much-mocked Xhaka. Yet – and while four games represents a small sample size – the problem is that neither looks a suitable figurehead for Emery’s new Arsenal.
Xhaka’s form – and Matteo Guendouzi’s contrastingly encouraging displays – has burnished the theory that the Swiss should be benched and that the French teenager ought to partner Lucas Torreira in the centre of midfield. Ozil is yet to create a major chance and, more pertinently, is ill-suited to Emery’s pressing game. It makes him feel more follower than leader.
That leaves Ramsey, a more natural presser and one who, a decade into his Arsenal career, could be both continuity candidate and fresh face for a new regime. Yet he was confined to a cameo at Chelsea and, with his contract expiring, may be leaving. A man potentially eyeing the exit would create another unfortunate impression, even if only in the couple of months before Koscielny returns.
Holding out for a hero
It gives Emery more flawed candidates than certain party political leadership contests. There is no ideal choice; no obvious Adams or Vieira waiting to assume the reins. Not in a team of new signings and youngsters, where players are trying to stave off decline and fight for their places in the team.
Perhaps Arsenal reflect a world where former players lament a lack of leaders in modern-day dressing rooms, and where itinerant careers produce fewer with a connection to the club. It is harder to find one who embodies Arsenal.
Jack Wilshere might have done. He may have had the character and the commitment to the club but not, Emery judged, the legs to make him an automatic choice. Exit the homegrown answer. Up stepped Koscielny, who always seemed a more natural vice-captain.
There was a time when the Arsenal armband seemed to have a galvanising power, when it spurred Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie on to greater feats. Now, while such form would be welcome, it is less about individual improvement than offering direction to a team; becoming the manager’s voice on the pitch at a time when Emery is trying to change the tactics.
It is about finding someone who can lead by example, rather than setting the wrong one.