Once upon a time, Arsenal’s engine was powered by the old guard – the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Tony Adams set the standard impossibly high.
The last decade has been something of a wilderness for the Gunners as, year by year, they gradually lost the leaders that made the club what they are. Out went William Gallas, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Thomas Vermaelen, Lauren Koscielny. Arsenal fans have been crying out for a figurehead who can push the club back into title contention after watching so many skippers try and fail.
For a time, simply finishing in the top four was deemed as a failure for Arsenal – now it’s the holy grail after four years outside the Champions League, and their recent plight since the departure of Arsene Wenger has coincided with a lack of generals on the pitch.
Gone are the days of Thierry Henry (C) and Patrick Vieira (R), who led Arsenal to the glory years
The Gunners have lost influential players in recent years and both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka (right) have not been able to guide the club alone
Mikel Arteta – a former Arsenal captain himself who knows what it means to lead the club and how important it is for the group to have someone to look up to – has been slowly rebuilding the club from the rubble of a disastrous tenure under Unai Emery but has lacked players who strike the right balance.
David Luiz is an experienced player with a bundle of trophies on his CV but his recent performances couldn’t match up to that and he was released in the summer. Everyone who watches Granit Xhaka can admire his fiery nature but he too often steps over the line – and it cost him the armband.
Current captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was only appointed because he was seen as Arsenal’s talisman, someone the squad could get behind. He isn’t vocal enough and his form has tanked.
So Arteta has been forced to look elsewhere and build a leadership system, much like Gareth Southgate has done with England – where he has one official skipper in Harry Kane and has introduced several other key figures like Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford.
Mikel Arteta is building a leadership unit at the Emirates based around young talent
Arsenal’s transfer business was slated this summer after spending £149m and failing to win any of their first three games. There were serious question marks over moves for Martin Odegaard, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Aaron Ramsdale and Nuno Tavares. It was warranted – but after three wins on the bounce, it is clear there is a strategy.
‘I think we are building some leadership in the group,’ he said last month. ‘It’s a really young group, with a lot of players under 23. Martin [Odegaard] is the captain of the national team and Sambi [Lokonga] was the captain at Anderlecht.
‘Martin has this capacity to do that with his talent, taking the ball in moments where others probably refuse to, but as well with his attitude, his rhythm and the way he presses and puts people under pressure.’
‘I’m delighted to have him not only what he gives us with the ball, he’s a real leader and example without the ball.’
Martin Odegaard is the skipper for Norway and is showing signs he could be their talisman
Another of his youthful summer signings is also demonstrating the same qualities. Aaron Ramsdale’s £23m switch from Sheffield United raised eyebrows – he had hardly pulled up trees last season as the Blades plummeted down to the Championship, but he has already dethroned Bernd Leno as Arsenal’s No 1 and is showing he is up for the fight.
He has let in just one goal in the three games he has played since becoming first choice, and Arteta was delighted at how he has battled for his place and then followed that up with assured displays after their 1-0 win over Burnley.
‘That’s his character and his leadership,’ he said. ‘That’s how he presents himself as a person as well and that’s what I like. He has a presence and he dominates his area.’
New goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has overcome a poor last season to become Arsenal’s No 1
Centre back Ben White also came in from Brighton for £50m – another fee that was slated when compared to the relatively modest £42m deal Man United completed for World Cup winner Raphael Varane.
Whether or not Arsenal overspent, White’s attitude, willingness to put his body on the line and drive to push the team forward is exactly what the club need. He’s been tipped as a future England captain in his career. His former Newport County team-mate Mark O’Brien said the squad could tell immediately he was a player who would lead by example and be trusted.
‘[League Two] is a very physical league, but he took to it so well,’ he told the BBC. ‘He was blocking shots and enjoying defending, but also showing his own qualities by being good on the ball. He looked like a complete player. You just knew, there and then, that he was going on to bigger and better things.
‘You could trust him. Normally, you feel like you have to coach young lads through games and speak to them a lot. But he grew and grew the more he played and started to showcase what he was all about.
Ben White (left) has gradually settled into life in north London and Emile Smith Rowe (R) is leading by example with his honest displays
White throws himself into tackles and his attitude is what Arsenal have been crying out for
‘With the attitude he’s got, and how level-headed he is, Ben lets his football do the talking. I think he’s only going to get better and better. I could see him being England captain in years to come.’
After something of a rocky start, White has settled into the team and was successful in shepherding Tottenham away from their goal to earn a 3-1 derby day win over their bitter rivals – a game that also saw two other rising stars step up to the plate.
Emile Smith Rowe opened the scoring at the Emirates and has quickly become a crowd favourite having joined the club at the age of just 10. It is his dedication to his own game and willingness to improve that stands out the most. The 21-year-old’s attitude will rub off on his team-mates and he seems to be making an impression on the international stage too.
‘Honesty is the word that jumps out to me,’ said former England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd. ‘We can talk about all the technical qualities that he’s got, his willingness to work for the team. But he is so honest in what he does. He is desperate to please.’
Smith Rowe has been a revelation in midfield and has made a big impression this season
Bukayo Saka is another player Arteta admires due to his bravery and decision-making
Gareth Southgate admitted he was ‘close’ to making his senior England squad and wants him to develop further. Also on the scoresheet was Three Lions star Bukayo Saka – who has been forced to dig deep as a player and banish the agonising memory of missing the decisive spot-kick against Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
He was also the target of racist abuse from fans after the game. Still only 19, he has shown character to fight back against adversity and get back to form with Arsenal, and displayed his hunger with a goal and assist against Spurs.
Arteta is a big fan of Saka and how he constantly demands the ball and makes bold choices when a game is tight.
Collectively, the Spaniard is assembling a group of young talent who fight for each other and lead as individuals first and foremost. The more players who display these qualities the more his squad will start to look like a unit and you can see the seeds being planted.