Jim White

Take me to your leader

Jim White

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The L word has been banned around the Emirates. Arsene Wenger, understandably exasperated by events over the past ten days, has refused to talk about it. He has even suggested that he doesn't believe in it. Yes, as far as Arsenal are concerned, leadership is up there with Santa and the Tooth Fairy: it's all a bit of a myth.

Wenger's point - clearly formulated to lessen the sense of crisis gripping his club - is that leadership is an over-rated virtue. What is more important, he said this weekend, was the ability to pass a football properly. No point gritting teeth and clenching fists if the ball is given straight to the opposition.

It is a good try. But you sense that right now what Wenger needs more than anything is a leader in his dressing room, a respected character prepared through word and deed to drive his colleagues through a sticky patch and out the other side. Whether Cesc Fabregas - his latest candidate for the armband - will prove to be that character only time will tell. He has everything else in his game, so he might well be.

One thing we know for certain is that William Gallas wasn't that man. The poor guy tried to be. In the Arsenal programme this season, his column has come accompanied by a picture in which he looked stern, trying to exude gravitas, thrusting the captain's armband towards the camera. He clearly took his responsibilities seriously. The trouble was, from the moment he threw a wobbler following Eduardo's injury at Birmingham, he demonstrated he wasn't made of the right stuff. His latest outburst merely endorsed what Wenger must have known all along. And whatever the manager might say in the midst of his leadership crisis, every team needs a captain made of the right stuff.

Look, for instance, at Arsenal's rivals. At Chelsea, John Terry's bulldog certainties don't diminish the rest of his team's abilities to fizz the ball around in splendidly executed passing patterns. But when things go awry, he is there to remind them of their duties. Likewise at Liverpool, how many games has Steven Gerrard won for the club through his astonishing ability to communicate his competitive desire? Since two of them were an FA Cup final and a Champions League final, his leadership qualities have been rather vital to his team's cause. Plus he is hugely assisted by his lieutenant and friend Jamie Carragher. At Manchester United Gary Neville and latterly Ryan Giggs - while not quite as up-and-at-em as Gerrard and Terry or indeed their predecessor the great Roy Keane - still embody what their club is all about. They set standards which others follow to the benefit of all. Wenger cannot seriously believe such contributions are irrelevant.

Actually, I don't believe he does. The problem is, such characters are not easily found. Footballers on the whole tend to be introspective and concerned more with their own performance than that of others. It takes a particular kind of inner confidence to be able to look round a dressing room and encourage others to perform. Wenger has said that in the modern game, played at such pace, it is impossible for one person to corral a team. One man in an armband, he says, cannot control the tempo of a side. The evidence of Gerrard would suggest otherwise.

In one way, Wenger is right, however. Arsenal's current inconsistent form - one week brilliant against Manchester United, the next woeful against City - is not solely a question of leadership. Their cause has been horribly compromised by injury. And the fact is some of the understudies are simply not good enough to progress the club into a challenging position - step forward Nicklas Bendtner and Mikael Silvestre to name but two. And yet fans of the Gunners should not wholly despair. Such is the diminished scale of Wenger's squad that on Saturday against City his bench featured names like Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Jay Simpson and Jack Wilshere.

Together with Gavin Hoyte and Theo Walcott, these are the building blocks of a side which has the potential to dominate for the next decade. But for that potential to be realised, a leader needs to be found. Whatever he might say in public, what Wenger will be hoping more than anything is that, as well as possessing the ability to pass a team to death, one of that group of immensely talented youngsters also has the character to pull his team mates through a crisis. If there is a Tony Adams among them, then Wenger really will have the justification to say I told you so.

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