Originally published in Give Me Sport – 4 March, 2016
Swansea broke Arsenal fans’ hearts with a late winner that, for many, has doomed the club’s title hopes. A Tottenham defeat may have balanced out the result at the Emirates, but it has simply ensured Leicester continue to cement their top place.
Defensive frailties are one thing and they were certainly made apparent in the previous loss to Manchester United – young Marcus Rashford scoring two relatively soft goals, the second entirely unmarked by a Laurent Koscielny who, when chasing silverware, should definitely know better.
But more striking is Arsenal’s lack of mettle on the pitch. The Gunners find themselves with a complete leadership absence. Mikel Arteta is club-captain and yet he finds his lack of first-team opportunities strictly limited, resulting in the often berated Per Mertesacker having to deputise.
Have Arsenal really replaced Thomas Vermaelen, in both defensive and leadership capacities?
When it comes to the big games, and the title race in general, when battles need to be fought and points scrapped for, can anyone wholeheartedly say that Arsenal roll their sleeves up and really fight for every ball?
Earlier in the season, it looked like there were glimpses of a different Arsenal, one that could handle the big-game pressure, see out the potential banana skins, and return from tough away fixtures with three points in the bag. But, yet again, when the title race hots up and it all really matters, Arsenal’s title hopes begin to fade away and the passion visibly drains from the players’ faces.
Gone are the days of Martin Keown, playing with his heart on his sleeve, and humiliating Ruud van Nistelrooy for missing his penalty on that infamous afternoon at Old Trafford. Keown and co.’s actions may have been condemnable, but their passion was evident and this carried Arsenal through to their monolithic Invincibles title.
Arguably, a large percentage of that squad hasn’t been replaced. The midfield powerhouse of Patrick Vieira certainly hasn’t. Although the Frenchman left in 2005, Arsenal’s decline was already in progress. Regardless of Francis Coquelin’s strengths, he’s certainly not at that level, at least not yet. How about Thierry Henry? Robin van Persie was a decent replacement, but even he was somewhat inconsistent.
That, however, is an entirely different matter and it would be ludicrous to suggest Keown plays at centre-half (although some fans may prefer that to Gabriel) but it isn’t unreasonable to expect passion, determination, and a certain team spirit when challenging for a title.
Leicester’s remarkable accomplishments can be partly attributed to the immense team spirit and resilience they showed in avoiding last season’s drop, a unity they have continued into this season and put to incredible effect.
Much like Ashley Williams, Wes Morgan is a passionate and commanding centre-back who whips his team into shape and leads them on the pitch. It’s these type of players who stave off relegation – as Morgan did last season and Williams looks set to do – and help teams flourish. Where is Arsenal’s equivalent player?
If Arteta is not going to be playing games, then why is he still captain? Mertesacker may be commanding in the air, but is he commanding on the pitch?
These are the questions Wenger needs to be asking and, if he cannot resolve the captaincy issue, then maybe he needs to look at bringing in a leader. Usually, the role goes to a long-serving player, but Aston Villa found success when they brought Ron Vlaar to the club and made him captain almost then and there. Although their recent new captain, Micah Richards, isn’t faring too well in his bid to keep them up.
Outside of the captaincy, regular passionate players, like Theo Walcott, just seem to be missing that spark. The English forward has been the golden boy during his time at the Emirates but the supporters have turned on him and after his disappointing display at Old Trafford pundits such as Alan Shearer, have not shone away from criticising the 26-year-old for his ‘anonymity’ on the pitch.
It’s player-fans, like Walcott, that need to be leading the team. They need to channel the supporters’ passion into performances on the pitch.
The Invincibles season was outstanding for many reasons and one of those was the visible squad cohesion and determination to fight tooth and nail for one another. Again, the ugly scenes during the Battle of Old Trafford did have a beautiful side – the Arsenal players were almost bursting with camaraderie.
Heads have clearly dropped in the Gunners camp as the title looks to be slipping from their sights. A leader needs to emerge, and fast. If leadership can be restored and passions rekindled, then there’s a strong chance Arsenal can beat Tottenham and galvanise the squad, the fans, and their title push.