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Arsenal's Chimeric Captaincy Overload, Or Leadership Is As Leadership Does

Arsenal have had seven players this season who have captained their country. This tells us a little about their countries, a lot about leadership and almost nothing about Arsenal.

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In response to last week’s post, I received an e-mail from an Arsenal fan. He reminded me of a fact which I saw a lot on Twitter in early September. Apparently leaderless Arsenal had, as a result of some frantic deadline-day maneuvering, acquired the international captains of Israel, South Korea and (once) Germany (they’d bought one of Everton’s captains too). Yossi Benayoun, Park Chu-Young and Per Mertesacker were added to Andrei Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky, Thomas Vermaelen and Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal, all of a sudden, had ‘six or seven captains’ (Arsene Wenger).

My correspondent made the point, alluded to by Wenger and cited by most of Arsenal’s Twitterati, that with such a wealth of international leaders it is absurd to accuse Arsenal of a lack of leadership. He was right, Wenger was right and the fifth estate was right. But not necessarily for the right reasons. Because ‘leadership’ isn’t a tangible quality, it cannot be amassed cumulatively (so Arsenal haven’t lost a bit of leadership by packing Arshavin off to Russia). Arsenal didn’t have a lack of leadership, but they don’t have a surplus now either. It doesn’t work that way because ‘leadership’ is a construct.

It can be constructed, pretty much, in any way you like. That is why you can get an MBA in it, from Harvard, or a badge, from the scouts. In football, as I wrote last week, it can be constructed tactically. Arsenal need tactical impetus from a particular area of the pitch, that which comes within the purview of the ‘Fabregas-role’ player (hence Sunday’s improved team performance coinciding with Rosicky’s controlling performance from that position) and their current lack of this, coincident as it is with the departure of last season’s captain, can look like a lack of leadership (even though it isn’t).

It can also be constructed, and this is the prominent understanding in this country, in the role of the captain.

Here, as the continual and continually dramatic angst over the England captaincy shows, the captain is the leader. Roughly construed, this means that he should be brave, loud and exhibit, at all times, an overtly ‘never-say-die’ attitude. So prevalent is the captain’s embodiment of these traits here, exemplified in the personage of John Terry, that they define the role in England’s football lexicon and give content to the concept of leadership as a result. For this reason, Arsenal’s wealth of captains is seen to imply a wealth of leaders but this non sequitur denies the ambivalence with which the role is treated by other nations.

Paul le Guen’s phenomenally unsuccessful time in charge of Rangers in the mid-noughties was defined, and then ended, by his decision to strip press and fan darling Barry Ferguson of the captaincy. Le Guen, who rather idiosyncratically promoted Gavin Rae from the reserves to the captaincy, defended his move on the grounds that, in France, the captain’s position was given less importance than was the case in Scotland. Essentially, he suggested (though this doesn’t really explain his preference for Rae over Ferguson – obviously he was trying to make a point, it didn’t work), you make your best player (Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry) captain and have done with it.

Pretty clearly, Arsenal’s international captains are qualified for the latter set of reasons. Rosicky, Arshavin, Benayoun and Park do not embody any sort of lion-like qualities that make them natural leaders of men; they are just the most high-profile players in mid-ranking international sides. Their presence at Arsenal does not, then, tell us anything about their club’s lack or abundance of ‘leadership’; instead, it tells us about ‘leadership’, which it shows up as an essentially empty concept.