During the thrashing at Bayern, a commentator remarked on the lack of leadership in the Arsenal squad – something we’re all well familiar with – as he rightly pointed out there was no one on the field who was willing to calm the players down or ensure Arsenal maintained their structure; which they had done till Kos went off. No, I’m not linking structured off-the-ball midfield to Kos and that may be another pondering for another day.
One of the main criticisms, among several, of Wenger has been that he never brought in any leaders post-Vieira; or post-Henry if you want to stretch it. Some say Adams was the last true leader at the Arsenal. Another criticism of Wenger is that his appointments post-Henry or post-Vieira if you wish, have been misplaced. You can read Dave’s poem to know what I mean.
So the question is “why?”
Why has Wenger not been able to find another leader?
Fans, commentators, pundits all have their views and the commonality in those views is that Arsenal lack an on-field leader who can drive the team when the going is tough. The other commonality is that allusions are made to Vieira or Adams for Arsenal, Gerrard for Liverpool, Terry for Chelsea, Keane for United as the archetype of a great leader.
However, is leadership really that simple?
We can try to understand the leadership dynamic from various angles:
- Type of leaders
- Leadership Expectations and Acceptance
- Player demographics/psychographics
Exploring the above three will help shed light on where fans, commentators, pundits are coming from when they talk about leadership and whether or not we need to re-evaluate our ideas of a leader.
The three angles are intertwined in a way; leadership expectations and acceptance vary depending on type of leaders and also on player demographics and/or psychographics. So I’m wracking my brain here trying to figure out how to go about this!
Let’s address the simple part first; types of leaders!
The Appointed Leader
Not sure if it’s the correct term because appointment of a leader can be done on any basis. Here I’m talking about someone, totally unexpected, is appointed a leader of a team. Unexpected because s/he may not have the merit whether in terms of achievement, or capabilities, or prior status within a team – to name a few!
William Gallas was one such appointment. Coming from a rival team, who knows how much rapport he had with the players, barely any time spent at Arsenal compared to the likes of Silva. Nothing really warranted his appointment except his seniority in football generally.
These sort of leaders are generally the most difficult to accept. They are met with a lot of resistance especially by other people who may have felt they should be the leader or someone else should be a leader. So, any behaviour which is seen as negative will only exacerbate any ill feelings towards the leader and will be more difficult for the leader to achieve his/her goals.
Leadership Through Succession
Organizations usually have succession plans in place for leadership so any one promoted to such a position is generally accepted because the buy-in is there. This also applies to monarchy but that’s a different area altogether!
Generally, if a football club has appointed a vice-captain, it would be expected that he would be the next captain if the time came.
Leadership Through Merit
The term speaks for itself. However, what becomes debatable is what is being merited? In football, is it performances on the field? Is it performances plus on-pitch leadership. Is it just on-pitch leadership?
With on-pitch leadership the question becomes what is on-pitch leadership? Is it pointing and shouting a la Flamini? Is it ability to calm and organize the team? Is it grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck? Is it all three? Or is it more subtle like something Dougie, from our GunnersTown team has suggested here?
Merit is usually more accepted by people but only if the right attribute(s) is/are merited. The “right attribute(s)” is subjective as well because different people will cite different attributes as the desired one in a leader.
In organizations you will hear plenty of people questioning leadership-role appointments because they have no idea what was merited when a certain appointment is made. As Gooners, I’m sure the same question popped in our mind when Gallas was appointed or when Wenger stuck with Captains who were injured most of the season.
So, although the ideal situation is to appoint a leader who merits the position, it is key to understand what is merited by those who are to be led.
Leadership Acceptance and The New Generation of Players
The other half of the leadership equation is acceptance. If a leader is not accepted by his/her people, then there’s only so much s/he can do to achieve any goal.
The question which I believe is the most important here is:
Have player personalities changed over the last decade that they affect leadership expectations and acceptance?
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s look back at the archetype leaders always cited by fans, commentators, and pundits. Apart from being very talented, they were very vocal and had enough aggression in them – the two combined allowed them to exert an influence on their teammates. However, what we ignore is that the rest of the team was made up of players who could accept that. Some part of those players’ egos could accept that another player can have a go at them or guide them. All those players were in the team because of merit; but, they could absorb that style of leadership that we oh so admire.
Those players; however, are from another generation. Commentators and pundits are from the same generation. There is a certain work ethic, attitude, and perception on things within that generation.
Moreover, the team spirit is there because all have accepted one another regardless of shortcomings so the willingness to listen to another is higher. Wenger’s management style driven by empowerment suits a group of players like this because they believe they are all answerable to each other.
However, player personalities have changed over the last decade as that generation has slowly retired and the millennials are in; well, they have been in for a decade but they make up greater parts of teams now.
So? How does that matter?
In my humble opinion, it does. You now have players with a different egos and different levels of sociability. Egos may be a bit more inflated, sociability may be a little less. Millennials are often branded with having a great sense of entitlement but that’s a whole other debate.
It’s a generation more willing to point a finger, question back, and believe themselves to be right i.e. not listen to other. No, not necessarily at the manager, but at each other. For example, for every bit of brilliance in Sanchez, Ozil may think he holds onto the ball too long, Giroud may think half his crosses don’t beat the first man but why talk to him about? He probably wouldn’t listen and point a finger back. Theo may believe he’s not played in behind the defence enough considering the amount of runs he makes. Who will listen to who and why?
This generation is fully capable of making noise, whining; but, who is it for? I referred to self-entitlement earlier, is it for themselves? Team togetherness just may have become more difficult to achieve with the new generation; appointing a leader a lot more tricky. It’s easy to appoint the most senior-member of a team as a leader but how acceptable is the shouting and imposing, from a peer, to this generation? How acceptable is it for a peer to tell them how to do their job?
Maybe there’s an additional reason why hands-on managers like Mourinho, Klopp, Guardiola, Conte, are successful – apart from tactics I mean – because they are the acceptable authority figure. None of these managers actually have those players who are typically considered as leaders on the field. Those players respond to the manager. Orders coming from the manager are acceptable.
Does that mean that the Arsenal players don’t respond to Wenger? No. Wenger empowers, they play accordingly. Wenger occasionally gives orders from the touchline and when he does, players heed.
Should Wenger change his style of management? He just may have to with this generation. Or, somehow, get players to understand each other better, not only as footballers but as human beings. Get players to subside their egos to some extent. I feel that most our players have subsided their ego for the greater good but all need to be at the same level. I say all because that ensures there’s no hesitancy on anyone’s part towards any player. Furthermore, that level of respect for each other and each other’s strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses needs to be there.
That respect and understanding will translate onto the pitch; it may improve us defensively as there will be more urgency to help a teammate or the team itself. I’m not saying the players don’t respect and understand each other at all; but, there definitely seems to be room for improvement.
Wrapping It Up
The typical Captain of yesteryear just may have become elusive; not for a lack of personalities out there but perhaps due to a different tolerance level among the new generation of players.
I still believe senior players can still influence players on the field but Wenger cannot pull off another Gallas. From a leadership perspective, I believe the Zlatan signing by Mourinho was a masterstroke because United because that player has that sort of aura. However, for Wenger, the challenge would be to find a Zlatan – senior, achieved it all, not from a rival, talented, and from a generation that is more sociable and can gel with the boys while maintaining that respect. I believe such players are in short supply. Zlatan isn’t even Captain but players would definitely respond to him.
Wenger can be faulted for bringing in relatively mellow personalities; I mean that’s fine but you need a mix. Sanchez is not mellow, but, his approach leaves a lot to be desired. You have a squad of players that will grow old together; none of them may ever accept each other as Captain, or none of them would fit that archetypal Captain mould. Wilshere is not a mellow personality and he seems to have a bit of the older generation in him; he just might be the one in the future. That’s the future though; for now, it’s a problem.
Wenger either needs to become more hands-on or improve the collective spirit of the team. The latter cannot be done dictatorially but can be done.
Of course, for all I know, I could be wrong about all this but I certainly felt it’s a valid hypothesis! Your views and comments are always appreciated, I always reply 🙂
Started supporting the club under dubious circumstances in ’97 but have never looked back since. I’ve only seen the Wenger era but continuously try to learn more about the history of the club. The Gunners’ results have affected my mood for every weekend for years now, I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I didn’t want to sleep the night we beat Barca! I reminisce about Henry every few weeks while Cesc’s wonderful passes play through my head every now and then! Hleb’s dribbles to Overmars’ speed always bring a smile, and I hope our current crop will stay a while.
Being a business major and a marketing professional, I believe there are always more than one way to look at things and that’s what you can expect from some of my blogs. Playing football for a number of years in various positions has helped evolve my understanding of the game though I still strive to learn more. I’m based in Karachi, Pakistan but dream of moving to London one day to be a ST holder!