Almost a year ago, in the Evening Standard of 20 January 2011, Arsene Wenger was quoted at saying:
We have a shared leadership in our team, but I believe Fabregas is an outstanding leader, especially when you consider he is 23 years old, with personality and character and Van Persie as well….I believe what is important in the way we want to play football is that everyone takes responsibility.
Back then, it was looking okay for Arsenal, as we had everything to fight for and the following six weeks, all the way to March, were the best of the season, cumulating in that emphatic win over Barcelona at home. We all know what came next: three months of weak and unforgivably lack-lustre football in which we almost lost everything. The only reason we finished fourth, so important for the CL, was the fact that the season ended just in time: had it lasted another four games, Arsenal would not have made it, so bloody poor had we become.
Where was the ‘shared leadership’ then, who was taking responsibility and where was the personality and character to see us through all of that?
Wenger has never openly shared the fans’ concerns regarding leadership during the Henry and Fabregas captaincy eras. He always seemed to downplay the importance of having a strong individual leader/captain on the pitch, and to stress the importance of having leadership throughout the team. Well, I think he was both right and wrong with those views on leadership, and looking at the ‘New Arsenal’ of 2011-2012 it looks like Wenger himself came to a similar conclusion over the summer, and subsequently made the necessary changes.
For many seasons, ever since Vieira left, a great number of Gooners have been saying that Arsenal lacked real leadership on the pitch. Many of us were longing for the powerful, outspoken, ‘heart on the sleeve’ leadership during the years of Adams and Vieira. Henry and Fabregas were brilliant at leading by example but most of us felt something was missing: they were not naturally born leaders and as a result were struggling with some vital aspects of leadership we were craving for.
When Arsene announced that Robin van Persie would become our new captain over the summer, not everyone was convinced it was a good idea. The main reason for this appeared to be the fact that he is a striker, and therefore not positioned centrally enough in the team to be able to lead it adequately. TH14 captaincy is generally seen as not a very successful one, and understandably, many fans drew a comparison between his previous captaincy and RvP’s anticipated stint at it.
For me Fabregas, was not an effective leader. I see him as a specialist, somebody who really wants to be part of a team and play an important but TECHNICAL role within it. Often, people who are technically very good at what they do, are promoted into a leadership role without proper consideration whether they are actually suitable for it (within sport as well as in business). The main reasons are: a desire to reward people for their contributions to the team/organisation and a fear of losing a particular player/member of staff if they are not promoted instantly. The consequences can be very dire. Fabregas led by example, but he is naturally quite introvert and combined with an injury-strewn season and his anticipated move to Barcelona, he was not able to lead the team through those horrible last three months. Moreover, there was hardly any shared leadership and taking of responsibility by the rest of the team with the exception of Van Persie, Wilshire, Koscielny Song and Sagna. It was time for a chance.
Robin van Persie: the perfect captain
What a difference a season makes. Robin van Persie has turned out to be the excellent leader we have all been craving for:
- RvP leads by example: not just with his incredible scoring record, but also with his high energy-levels. He never spares himself, always gives everything and plays with his heart on his sleeve. He will also stand up for his players and let nobody be bullied by the opposition;
- RvP is blessed with a high level of social-emotional intelligence: he understands what is going on inside other players, and is able to support them accordingly, on and off the pitch;
- RvP is extrovert: he is not a constant shouter, but he likes to talk to this fellow players and make himself known when things are not going right;
- RvP is a great communicator: with the crowd/fans – an ambassador for the club. When, for example, he scored the winner against Sunderland with a brilliant free-kick, he took off his shirt which resulted in a yellow card being issued to him, but this was his way of showing the crowd how much Arsenal (winning) meant to him, and the crowd responded to it in equal measures. He interviews well, always smiles and is able to focus on the positives: he always represents the club professionally and with real passion – a true ambassador;
- RvP is a great communicator: ‘liaison-manager’ between the players and the management. He has got the respect of Wenger and the players and seems to be able to translate messages, up and down, and down and up, effectively;
- RvP can combine with ease his own ‘specialism’: scoring goals a plenty and creating chances for others, with his responsibility of leading the team;
- RvP is team player/ team builder: he always wants to celebrate his goals with others in the team and he will always praise, on and off the pitch, contributions made by others.
As the saying goes there is no ‘I’ in team – but there is every bit of ‘PERSIE’ in leadership!
So, there you have it: RvP is the perfect captain. But, there is more! And this is why I am so extra-excited about the near future for our beloved Arsenal.
The ‘New Arsenal’ is brimming with leadership
We now have real ‘shared leadership’ throughout the spine of the team, and for Wenger to have achieved this in such a short period of time, is simply astonishing. From Szczesny to Vermaelen, Mertesaker and Koscielny, to Song and Arteta, to Ramsey and Van Persie, we now have a core in the team who give their all and take responsibility when things go wrong. Mertesacker was like the devil –possessed in his attempts to break down the Wolves wall on Boxing Day, as he was earlier in the season at Blackburn away. Vermaelen’s ‘Terminator-like’, beastly hunger to score an equaliser against Man City is another great example of our players taking responsibility and wanting to make things happen for Arsenal. Szczesny attempts to organise his defence, with his verbal and physical dominance, are so different of what we have seen from Almunia and co, and the joint desire by the defence to fight for clean sheets is also very encouraging. This, as yet, is not always leading to the desired outcomes, but it’s only a matter of time before we will pick the fruits of this shift in mentality.
Arteta, Ramsey and Song, all wear their hearts on the sleeve. The ARS of the team works phenomenally hard and is the engine of it. I feel Arteta and Song are more of the introvert type, who stick to a task well and will never let the team down. Ramsey is probably more likely to become a future leader, but he is focussing on improving his technical performances first, at this stage of his career.
Theo, The Gerv, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Santos are also good team players who work hard and give their all for the team, and there are now plenty of good players on our bench who care for the club and will fight for it. This really is a new Arsenal, with a new mindset, and as Arsene likes to call it, bags full of ‘mental strength’.
Jack Wilshere – the final link
For me, the final, missing leadership-link in the spine of our team is Jack Wilshere. Wilshere is a born leader who just gives that extra-10% to our midfield with his hunger, extrovert leadership skills and unbelievable ability to command the midfield. For me, he instantly turned into a man when we beat Barcelona at home last season: what he showed during that game was simply astonishing. Future Arsenal and England teams will be build around him, and as soon as he returns into our team we will make a big jump forward.
As said in previous posts, this is a transitional year for Arsenal. I believe that all the ingredients are there for a long period of success and dominance in the PL, and possibly in Europe. No team can do without great leadership throughout the team: it is one of the key pillars of sustained success. I have little doubt that the ‘narrow’ spine of Szczesny – Vermaelen – Song – Wilshere – RvP will be the strongest in the country for years to come, and with RvP we have the best leader of them all.