Do Arsenal have fewer leaders than their title rivals and does it matter?
Following Sunday's hugely disappointing 3-2 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford, it didn't take long before some familiar criticisms of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal emerged. The problem, it seems, was a lack of leadership. "Arsenal's major failure in recent years is not investing in leaders," Rio Ferdinand said. "People that grasp the moment, that set the right tone."
Former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour agreed. "The big players didn't turn up," he said. "The most important thing is the leaders. When the going gets tough, you need people like that -- when I played we had Tony Adams. Guys like that demand more from you when you're up against it."
Few Arsenal fans would argue that the current side has more leaders than during the Adams era when the entire defence was packed with experienced, dependable professionals. Nevertheless, football's insistence on eternally looking to the past to find "leaders" and "characters," before comparing the current crop unfavourably, is somewhat tiresome.
"Football today lacks the personalities of 20 or 30 years ago," the Arsenal manager once wrote. "It is sometimes said that if the old players were to come back, they would show up the limitations of the men of today. But there is no coming back. I know how boldly and confidently the old-timers speak of their prowess, and how they are inclined to belittle modern day players."
It might surprise you, however, to learn that "the Arsenal manager" is not Arsene Wenger writing in 2016 but legendary boss Herbert Chapman in 1934. He penned that 80 years ago, but those comments could apply perfectly today. Every generation thinks there were more personalities and more leaders back in the day.
Adams was the archetypal captain, a centre-back you eternally picture pointing a teammate into position, but it's doubtful whether Arsenal's 2003-04 side were packed with leaders. The man who succeeded Adams as captain was French midfielder Patrick Vieira, a tremendous footballer who led by example, but not a traditional leader.
Vieira admits being "unsure" when Wenger asked him to take the armband after Adams' retirement. In Amy Lawrence's book about Arsenal's Invincibles season of 2003-04, it's interesting to read Jens Lehmann on Vieira. "Patrick was somebody who you needed to kick up the bum sometimes, because he was very laid-back and he knew, 'ooh, I'm the greatest' -- being great doesn't always help."
Arsenal went unbeaten that season, of course, despite having a captain in this mould. The best players of that time -- Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Ashley Cole, Gilberto Silva -- were surely not natural leaders; perhaps Lehmann was the closest thing. In Lawrence's book, the Arsenal players are keen to stress that they preached "shared leadership" but isn't this simply a favourable spin upon the fact Arsenal didn't have a natural leader like Adams back then, either? It's a positive concept because Arsenal won the title.
More importantly, though, the Arsenal of 2016 are not competing with the Arsenal of 1998 or 2004: they're competing with the Leicester and Tottenham sides of 2016. Looking through those teams, it's difficult to find leaders there either.
Who are Leicester's leaders? Robert Huth, perhaps? He's no more of a leader than Per Mertesacker. His centre-back colleague Wes Morgan is the club captain but few would have described him as an inspirational leader last season when he was constantly making ludicrous errors: only now, largely thanks to the brilliance of Leicester's attacking players, would Morgan be considered a good leader. Kasper Schmeichel is a reasonably vocal goalkeeper but nothing more. They arguably lost their clearest leader, Esteban Cambiasso, last summer.
Similarly, Tottenham don't have particularly dominant personalities: this is a young, hard-working, disciplined and somewhat shy group of footballers following their manager's instructions flawlessly. Again, you look to the goalkeeper and the centre-backs for signs of leadership: Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are excellent players enjoying fine seasons but they don't boast leadership qualities to embarrass Arsenal's equivalents.
If the likes of Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane are now considered leaders, then surely the concept of leadership is essentially decided in retrospect based upon the overall success of a side. It's a self-fulfilling concept: Any successful side has leaders. Any bad teams clearly have none.
English football is obsessed with these old-school attributes: leadership, "bottle," mental strength. Those are unquestionably valuable attributes, but they are also easy, often-used criticisms -- the default explanation when technical, tactical or physical qualities are actually lacking. In truth, it's difficult to find any current Premier League side that have a particularly impressive number of natural leaders. Maybe that's why the standard is currently poor and why the league is wide-open. Whatever the truth, it's not an area in which Arsenal are demonstrably weaker than their title rivals.
Because everyone jumps upon Arsenal's traditional weaknesses quickly, Wenger's side often escape criticism for not performing in their traditional areas of strength. They're a lesson in confirmation bias.
The most notable thing about their performance at Old Trafford was the lack of a deep-lying playmaker who could dictate the play from central midfield, push Arsenal forward and help the Gunners to apply concerted pressure on the Manchester United backline. Wenger prides himself upon his side's slick midfield passing but while Arsenal had 61 percent of possession in the game, their most frequent passing combinations involved the defenders keeping the ball for long periods.
You can say that's about a lack of leadership if you like. Alternatively you can simply say it's about Francis Coquelin being a pure holding midfielder rather than a playmaker, or about Aaron Ramsey wanting to storm forward rather than dictate play from deep. This, however, remains a relatively rare problem for Arsenal: their passing is usually very good.
Indeed, if the Gunners fail to win the title, and either Leicester or Tottenham triumph, it will be the organisation of those sides -- particularly without the ball -- that should be highlighted as the major difference. In terms of on-field leadership, there's little difference between them and Arsenal.