The armband – does it mean anything?

As I touched on in my article last week: with Robin van Persie surely set to leave Arsenal this summer, the club is about to face yet another change in captaincy, with the Dutch striker having only replaced Cesc Fabregas as skipper a year ago.

I suggested Bacary Sagna as a replacement in my last piece (that will not be the focus today), but whoever gets the armband next will be the fifth different captain we’ve had since we last won a trophy. This trophy, of course, was brought by the final kick of one of the club’s great captains: Patrick Vieira.

Vieira himself was only Arsene Wenger’s second captain in the first, more successful, half of his Gunners reign. It was with this continuity of Tony Adams and Vieira (vice-captain in Adams’ absence and an obvious replacement when Mr Arsenal retired) at the club that we did so well – so is there a link between long-term captains and success?

The mind goes immediately to Manchester United, the most successful English club in recent years. Funnily enough, they too have had a lot of changes of captain. Since Roy Keane left in 2005, they have had almost as many captains as us. Initially Gary Neville took over, but didn’t always feature due to his age and injury problems. He was, to all extents and purposes, the official club captain, with a sort of ‘club ambassador’ role off the pitch; meanwhile, Giggs, Ferdinand and Vidic would alternate on the pitch, until Vidic was finally made official captain at the start of the 2010/11 season. Even then, he missed much of last season through injury and Patrice Evra took on the role.

Now, all of this chopping and changing at United hardly points to the kind of continuity that the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool have had, with Terry and Gerrard being their only skippers since 2004. And yet, United’s core of experienced players, who have all been at the club for long periods and won things with the club, meant that a sharing of the armband was easy. Wenger often stresses that he wants all of his players to be leaders, and United certainly set a fine example in that respect. How Arsenal long for the days when – in a worst case scenario – Vieira or Adams weren’t available, and they could turn to the likes of Keown, Parlour or even David Seaman; players you could trust with the responsibility of leading the club.

Once again, all this begs the question – why has Wenger been so quick to lose the old heads of the team? Parlour left too quickly; Gilberto left too quickly; Lehmann left too quickly… the list goes on. Once van Persie goes, our longest-serving players will be Diaby, Walcott and Rosicky. None of these exactly inspire confidence, do they? None of them, arguably, even deserve to be in the first XI when everyone is available.

Anyway, United seem to be an exception when looking at the successful clubs of recent years. Barcelona, for instance, have had Carles Puyol as captain since 2004; Inter Milan have had Javier Zanetti as captain since 1999; AC Milan had Paolo Maldini from 1994 til 2009, before another long-serving player Massimo Ambrosini took over; and Real Madrid had the Spanish national team captain Iker Casillas to replace Raul, who was captain from 2003 to 2010.

The Wikipedia page for ‘Captain (association football)’ reads: The only official responsibility of a captain specified by the Laws of the Game is to participate in the coin toss prior to kick-off and prior to a penalty shootout. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, captains have no special authority under the Laws to challenge a decision by the referee. At an award-giving ceremony after a fixture like a cup final, the captain usually leads the team up to collect their medals. Any trophy won by a team will be received by the captain who will also be the first one to hoist it.

This sums up well what we all know: it’s pretty clear that the captain’s armband in football is little more than a symbolic gesture; it goes to the older, more respected or more charismatic members of a squad. I guess the problem is that, although only symbolic, it sums up Arsenal over the years: too much movement of players, too many young players, not enough leaders. The captain should be the face of the club, to some extent, and ours are always wanting to leave for better things; a far cry from figures like Adams and Maldini, who stayed with one club their whole career, and led their team until they retired.

Wenger has perhaps picked his captains badly in recent years. William Gallas was not particularly popular with the fans or the players (though personally I think that says more about the state of the club than Gallas himself, who was a demanding winner); Fabregas was always going to head back to Barcelona at some point; and van Persie was enjoying great form whilst not committing to signing a new contract, something that was always going to mean he’d be a target for bigger clubs. Wenger has to make his next choice carefully: who is going to give Arsenal ten years of great service? Who is going to put the future of the club first?

Perhaps by this criteria, Sagna at 29 is a bit too old to be the long-term choice. Next in line would probably be Vermaelen. Either way, a change of approach is needed – it should not necessarily be the best player or the star name. Just someone with the best attitude who won’t have their heads turned any time soon.

Follow me on Twitter @markbrus


I'm 23-years-old and currently living in Bristol, studying to be a journalist. I've been hooked on Arsenal since I was about 10, and as much as I sometimes wish I could stop, I can't give them up. Favourite player of all time would have to be Patrick Vieira for the sheer passion with which he played the game.