Sometime in May 2005, Arsene Wenger led an Arsenal side which withstood a 105-minute assault from their counterparts from Manchester United, and they got away with the lottery of spot kicks to come out on top on the day having had their backs against the wall from the 26th minute.
The team skippered by a certain leggy Frenchman battled relentlessly as the Red Devils threw wave after wave of assault. But with the entire siege against the Gunners, the red and white team withstood them. Some could argue that the Gunners were lucky on the day as several goal-line clearances, penalty appeals and shots off the woodwork had the Arsenal with their hearts in their mouths. Another would opine that resolute defending was the key to the victory on the day. But one very key factor that was clearly on display for all to see in the Arsenal team was leadership and a high team mentality.
Arsenal won 5-4 on penalties after Jens Lehmann saved Paul Scholes’ pen. It was obvious that Patrick Vieira was very instrumental in keeping the Arsenal ship afloat as he kept on controlling the players in their game play, positioning, attitude and overall the team mentality. Most obvious of his contribution on the day was when he barked at Jose Antonio Reyes to haunt and bring down Cristiano Ronaldo, who picked up a stray Lauren pass and was going to exploit the right-backs wing, as the Spaniard failed in an attempt to launch an attack. Vieira was the next man to track Ronaldo but with the pace of the Portuguese winger, coupled with the Arsenal captain’s fatigue, he ordered Reyes to track his man and he did.
The game incidentally was Vieira’s last game, and this ushered in the era of Wenger building his team around youth, as opposed to the experience he had favoured before.
The effect of Vieira’s sale meant captaincy shifted to Thierry Henry and over the next few years, an exodus of experienced players was accompanied by the influx of raw talent.
Edu’s exit, whose deal was concluded shortly before Vieira’s sale, was the first in line as Robert Pires, Freddie Ljunberg, Gilberto and Henry all found the exit door under different circumstances. This made room for Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Mathieu Flamini, Gael Clichy, Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor, Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, Abou Diaby, Robin van Persie and the very many youngsters who have benefited from this change of policy and philosophy. As the exodus of these experienced stalwarts peaked, so was the exit of know-how, maturity, leadership and team mentality.
The team from 2007 to the present day though has talent in abundance. It has shown on several occasions a lack of maturity, mentality and on-field leadership. Though the team is growing as experience and maturity comes with time and they are not the youngsters of yester-years anymore, it has left it’s mark in the results and trophy room as one has lost count of how many times the Gunners have fallen from winning positions, either in matches or season race itself.
In the last five seasons, Arsenal has competed for the title until February, before a certain capitulation occurs. This capitulation in title races has also reared its ugly head in matches as well when Arsenal are leading, albeit sometimes very comfortably and end the game with either a draw or a loss. Looking closely at the team, it is obvious that lots of potentials lie therein, but as the saying goes, ‘TALENT IS NEVER ENOUGH’. With a coach like Arsene that believes in doing his work in the dressing room and training ground, while preparing his team and opting to sit out most games analysing and discussing with his ever present assistant in Pat Rice, then it is inevitable to have a leader, communicator, thinker and team director on the field. Like Vieira. Tony Adams as well was one of such captains who not only played their heart out, but also directed the teams attitude and play from the rear or centre of play.