Why Tottenham and Arsenal's Lack of Genuine Leadership Is Underming Both Clubs
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Defining what leadership means to teams in any sport is a difficult task.
Those of us on the outside are only privy to so much of what goes on, and what we do see is only then interpreted from a distance.
Even for those in the middle of a game, tournament or a long season, it remains a complicated quality that means different things to different people.
This is all to say that, when pinpointing the lack of leadership at both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur right now as a significant failing of both clubs, it is done so on the assumption that people within both clubs might see this assessment very differently.
But if you compare the current teams with their predecessors in the Premier League era, it is clear to see the types of people that led those sides are so recognizably absent right now.
Tottenham have not enjoyed anywhere near the kind of success Arsenal have in those same years.
So even when they were led by effective captains like Gary Mabbutt and Sol Campbell (he was a good skipper before he moved across town), just having two defenders who could organize, cajole and motivate as well as they did was not enough by itself to compensate for problems elsewhere in the team.
But Spurs did benefit from possessing such players, when in the last decade the quality of their teams began to improve.
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During Martin Jol's tenure as manager, it was initially vastly experienced professionals such as Noureddine Naybet and Edgar Davids, who though their impact on the pitch may have been relatively brief, led by example in such ways that those around them could not fail to pick up on it.
The beneficiaries were guys like Robbie Keane, Paul Robinson, Michael Dawson and most notably Ledley King.
King was an excellent captain for Tottenham for a good six years.
Before his injury problems began causing longer spells on the sidelines, it was his near-impeccable marshaling of the defense in 2005/06 and 06/07 that was a significant reason behind two of the club's most consistently impressive seasons in many years.
Even afterwards King could come in for shorter stretches of fixtures and still be relied upon to set the tone for his team — the climaxes of the 07/08 League Cup success and the 09/10 fourth-place push proving that.
King's retirement this past summer has robbed Spurs of a major figure, a leadership deficit that has been exacerbated by the absence of the dynamic, sleeves-up midfield grafter that is Scott Parker.
Andre Villas-Boas has placed much of the burden on leading his team on the pitch with William Gallas, a decision that has categorically failed.
Gallas can still be relied upon to put in a strong defensive performance from time to time (he put in a remarkable effort in the win against Manchester United), but these are not frequent enough and are often countered by displays that expose his flaws quite considerably.
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Despite being a vocal on-field presence, this volume is not translated into adept organizational skills nor an understanding of the best methods of motivating those around him.
This was emphasized most clearly in one incident, Ben Watson's winner for Wigan Athletic in their 1-0 defeat of Spurs a couple of weeks back.
Gallas could be seen motioning and imploring his teammates to mark Watson, even though the Frenchman himself was unoccupied and able to take responsibility.
Instead the Wigan midfielder was allowed to move into the penalty area unmarked and score unchallenged, to which Gallas responded by visibly admonishing his teammates in a sadly familiar display of hysterics.
To put the leadership onus solely on Gallas' shoulders would be wrong, but Spurs should expect better from their captain, which makes it all the more remarkable that Michael Dawson is being left on the substitutes' bench.
Dawson has proven his worth as a leader of this side in the past, notably in 09/10 when he came into the side after an injury absence of his own and led superbly without King.
When he had played without King before, Dawson had struggled somewhat, but here he formed an effective partnership with Sebastien Bassong that helped to guide Spurs to fourth place and Champions League qualification (winning him the club's Player of the Year Award in the process).
He has demonstrated himself to be a far better defensive organizer than Gallas, and would not so readily allow the lapses in concentration and indeed effort that has seeped into Tottenham's performances in and around their own penalty box.
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The last time Spurs played the North London Derby, Dawson was dropped prior to the game after a run of strong performances and his team duly suffered, with a struggling King and comparatively inexperienced Younes Kaboul unable to cope with the rigors of such a huge game.
Arsenal capitalized on Spurs' defensive weaknesses in quite startling fashion, and they possess the capability to do so again this weekend.
But where once those types of performances could be expected from the Gunners on a near weekly basis, they have become an increasing rarity over the course of the Premier League season.
Fans of the club know their team has plenty of issues that need addressing, but there is such a distinct correlation between Arsenal's downturn in form and the absence of genuine leaders among their ranks, that it makes it all the more remarkable Arsene Wenger has done so little to act on it.
The last trophy Arsenal won was the 04/05 FA Cup, a success that also happened to be the last of Patrick Viera's time at the club as he moved to Italy that summer—it is no coincidence they have won nothing since then.
They were so successful prior to that point when captained by the likes of Viera and Tony Adams, who were ably supported by teammates of comparative experience, quality and passion.
Captains that have followed Viera—Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie—are great players, ones capable of leading by example (which especially in the case of the first two was shown by Arsenal remaining one of the Premier League and European football's best sides).
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But there is only so far that leadership can take you, and Arsenal have thoroughly missed figures such as Adams and Viera, who as captains had so much more about them.
You only have to look at the teams who have won titles since then to see the types of men that make a difference in this respect—John Terry and Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United, Vincent Kompany at Manchester CIty.
Right now Arsenal are thoroughly lacking that type of figure, and it is worrying that Arsene Wenger this week expressed concerns that Thomas Vermaelen is struggling under the weight of expectancy that comes with the captaincy.
It is early days for the Belgian wearing the armband, so to write off the possibility of such a fine player becoming an equally good leader would be foolish.
But Wenger must endeavor to not only support Vermaelen, but find players to step up in the way so many others have for him in the past.
They may yet come from within, in the form of youth team products like Jack Wilshere, or it might have to solely originate from signings elsewhere.
What is clear is that Arsenal, and Tottenham, are seeing their efforts to compete with their division's best being substantially undermined by a failure to address a problem that could be solved with a little more thought.
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