The Arsenal captaincy has come as something of a curse to those who it has been dispensed to over the past decade. Gone are the days of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, the archetypal heart on your sleeve, vocal leaders barking orders to their teammates to see them through the game, in fact, since Cesc Fabregas it is hard to say an Arsenal captain has even held onto the role long enough whilst playing regularly to ‘lead by example’.
It is hard to forget the unsavoury endings that our best and most recent captains have had with the club: whether it be the aforementioned Fabregas moving to Barcelona in a display of petulance with his World Cup winning Spanish teammates, or, more recently, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s move to Barcelona after being frozen out by Mikel Arteta, or worst of all Robin van Persie’s sweet talking on the phone with Sir Alex Ferguson landing him a move to Manchester United, winning the club their most recent Premier League title back in 2013 and performing emphatically, punishing Arsenal in the process.
Even without transfer drama or disrespect to the club, Arsenal have had an array of captains quite literally unfit for purpose. From 2012 to 2018, club captains Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker played a total of 4,032 Premier League minutes, for comparison Chelsea captain John Terry played 9,913 Premier League minutes in the same period! In fact, despite often deputising as captain and having a great reputation amongst Arsenal fans, in his only full season as official Arsenal skipper, Laurent Koscielny racked up just 1,330 Premier League minutes, however the Frenchman’s name won’t just be mentioned for a lack of game time…
As well as fitness issues and transfer heartbreaks, who can forget the other endings to the Arsenal captaincy in the Emirates era? We’ll start with William Gallas shall we: the man signed from Chelsea and sold to Tottenham, what could go wrong there? Gallas was captain for the entirety of the 2007/08 season, however tensions started to bubble beneath the surface after a collapse at Birmingham City, where he stropped, sulked and eventually sat on the pitch long after the final whistle whilst the rest of his teammates walked off. This event snowballed and after remaining club captain into next season, Gallas gave an interview which proved to be the final nail in the coffin, where he publicly questioned his teammates ability and mentality, giving Arsène Wenger no choice but to strip the Frenchman of the captaincy, leave him out of squad for the next game and fine him two weeks wages. Simple!
Another Frenchman who deserves a small mention here is none other than Laurent Koscielny, a man who played through physical pain plenty of times in the latter stages of his career for the club and received adoration for it. Koscielny swapped Arsenal for Bordeaux after almost a decade and over 250 appearances at the club, no animosity – oh wait he’s taken his Arsenal shirt off and thrown it on to the floor in his announcement on Bordeaux’s official Twitter account… moving on.
Lastly comes Granit Xhaka’s time as Arsenal captain, which was a short and complicated one. I felt and still feel for Xhaka in many ways, but to put it simply, Xhaka was made the main captain in manager Unai Emery’s infamous ‘leadership group’, which was actually made up of five players, although it was always unclear what exactly was going on here. Regardless, Xhaka seemed and still does in many ways seem like a natural fit for a club captain – a strong speaker who is captain of his nation, rarely injured and never afraid to defend his teammates. However, after criticism from Arsenal fans throughout his whole stay at the club to this point, some which crossed the line to abuse, an uninspired Emirates began running out of patience, cheering as Xhaka was substituted against Crystal Palace whilst drawing the game, bringing the Swiss to boiling point, culminating in him gesturing at fans to boo louder and telling them to “F*ck off”. Under pressure boss Emery took an almost immediate decision to strip the captaincy from Xhaka and instead give it to Aubameyang, who only ever received the armband as he was far and away our best player despite never really being suited to the role.
Alas, here we are today, and since Aubameyang’s departure, Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka and former striker Alexandre Lacazette have all shared the armband but now it is time for something more permanent, a moment I have dreaded in recent history – often the beginning of the end for a player at Arsenal.
As we have come to expect during Arteta’s tenure as Arsenal manager, the process of who will be next captain will be decided diligently, and this culture of captains who aren’t fit for the role should be coming to an end soon, in line with the rest of the cultural reset Arteta wants to instil at London Colney.
Rather than pretend that there are no rumours or leaks on who may be awarded the captaincy next, in my opinion the candidates in the current squad are Tierney, Xhaka, Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Magalhães. Recent reports linking Ukrainian Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal raise my eyebrow, as he seems to be a leader in every sense of the word, although I’d be doubtful that a player would walk straight in and become captain – regardless, like all the other players listed above, armband or not they will provide leadership.
Looking at those names, it is easy to make a case for all of them, but one name stands out to me completely. There are pros and cons for all, and there are certainly cons with this choice, but I believe the next Arsenal captain will be Martin Ødegaard – and I think this is the right choice.
The initial reaction I read amongst fans when Ødegaard was linked with the captaincy was one of disappointment, a belief that he is a little too much of a luxury player for the role and could struggle when the chips are down – a sentiment I share to a degree. I think what is important though is breaking down exactly what is required from a captain, and for me it would be these qualities:
- Experience: Either as a captain or in football generally – no situation should fluster them.
- Communication: This goes without saying – your teammates must understand your commands and be able to access you, so for me your goalkeeper should never be your captain.
- Availability: As discussed earlier, availability is the best ability especially as a captain, as this creates a bond between you and your teammates, providing clarity and consistency in your leadership while avoiding confusion.
- Footballing IQ: A captain should be able to lead a press, tell his teammates where to be late in a game, tell his defence to push up a yard – the small details make a big difference.
- Squad role: A captain doesn’t have to be your best player by any means, but having an important role in the squad helps to ensure consistency – much like availability does.
- Relishing the responsibility: Captains are required to do far more behind the scenes than fans ever appreciate, countless meetings, being a link between the players and manager or simply listening to your teammates’ issues.
Despite having rough parameters for what I’d like to see, there really is no right or wrong way to captain in the modern game, at least not just put into the cliched ‘vocal leader’ or the ‘leader by example’ boxes. So much more goes on behind the scenes as a captain, even down to the respect a player has in the dressing room. France’s World Cup winning team of 2018 is a great example of this: Hugo Lloris captained the side, yet the man with the powerful speeches gearing his squad up for battle was Paul Pogba, but this did not detract from what Lloris brought to the role. Players aren’t just looking up to one figure in their dressing room anymore – different characters bring different characteristics.
Ødegaard might not be the archetypal leader, but he is certainly the best fit in the squad. The Norwegian was named captain of his country at just 22 years old, and has captained the team in his 18 appearances since then – a squad composed of players of all ages and levels of experience. Norwegian boss Ståle Solbakken praised Ødegaard’s maturity when appointing him captain: “There was a feeling I had after conversations with players. We think Martin has lived a long life already in European football,” Solbakken said, with Ødegaard relishing the opportunity, who responded: “It comes with an extra responsibility both on and off the field. I’m ready to take that.”
With all of this praise from within the game, we must also note the feeling from the fans, and from the outside looking in, Martin Ødegaard appears to be a huge voice in the dressing room and a massive influence on the pitch – such is his role in the team. From my seat at the Emirates last season I watched Ødegaard orchestrate the game with the ball at his feet as much as I did when he was out of possession: constantly scanning, organising his teammates and leading the press. He is capable of changing a game on his own, providing a moment of magic to change a lacklustre performance into a strong one, and to inspire his teammates to improve their performances. This X factor that the Norwegian possesses is something that cannot be taught, and indicates Ødegaard having a strong mind on young shoulders. He pictures the game two steps ahead of the rest, anticipating well and reacting sharply, and above all he really does seem to care, a quality you would expect from any player, but as Arsenal fans will know, does not always transpire from everybody.
I certainly have reservations about awarding the captaincy to Ødegaard, concerns that mainly regard mentality and consistency. As joyful a player as Ødegaard is, Arsenal’s #8 has the tendency to drift into a different world when the occasion or atmosphere gets too much. Much like his flair-laden Emirates forefather in Mesut Özil, he is unstoppable in the right flow, but if that flow is interrupted for whatever reason, the result can be catastrophic. Once the mental side of Ødegaard has begun to wobble, the technical side is quick to follow, eliminating his ability to change a game with the ball at his feet, or organise his teammates pressing. A few big examples of this came last season away at Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Newcastle, where the nine points dropped ultimately cost Arteta’s side Champions League football.
This leaves me wondering: is that the difference between a good captain and a great captain? Is that enough reason alone for Ødegaard not to receive the armband?
However, the more pertinent questions are: who would be a better fit? Does the armband even matter that much anyway? Could giving Ødegaard the extra responsibility and importance dissolve these concentration issues altogether?
Ultimately all other players mentioned prior to be put forward for the captaincy have glaring issues themselves, from Tierney’s unreliable fitness, to Xhaka’s reluctance to take the armband back full time after previous misdemeanours, or Gabriel’s lack of fluent communication with the team… Or indeed that after summer reinforcements are made, all three of these players may find themselves far more heavily rotated than before.
As for the captains importance in the modern game and more specifically at Arsenal, whilst I think it is important you have some kind of chain of command at a football club, and it clearly is a decision that needs to be carefully considered to provide the required stability, in this Arsenal side, I’m more confident than ever that the official captain will be entering the pitch with ten more around him. The lack of egos and the feeling of every single player and member of staff pulling in the same direction at the club has real significance, and the environment Mikel Arteta and his team have nurtured allows for fans to feel comfort over decisions like this and in moments of adversity. Arsenal last season found a rhythm, and developed into a team who are not only capable of producing great football (albeit still with a way to go), but will not be pushed over or bullied. This type of mentality from top to bottom at the club will prove far more important than the negligible differences between the candidates for captaincy.
With that being said, one decision will have to be made, and you did not read this for me to sit on the fence. I must preface my closing choice with the wildcard that is Granit Xhaka, simply because I feel he should have never had his captaincy stripped in the first place. Whilst I understand Emery’s decision under pressure, as well as Xhaka’s disciplinary issues at times, he is accustomed to the role and acts as a model professional, although I accept avoiding an official return to captaincy for Xhaka is the smart decision. My choice, despite his major flaw, remains Martin Ødegaard, as one thing that is certain is that he ticks all the positive boxes, is vitally always in the starting XI, and therefore acts as an anchor for the rest of the players to work around. He is used to the responsibility of being a captain and is very clearly one of Mikel Arteta’s most trusted players. With an atmosphere and unity so strong at the club, the decision becomes more a case of who ‘makes the most sense’, and the answer is Martin Ødegaard, who I’m excited to see blossom into the role if he is trusted with the responsibility.
Written by: Joe @JoeWritesftbl