Arsenal captaincy decision: a new era or the same old Gunners?

Arsenal kick off the 2022-23 Premier League season next Friday when they visit Selhurst Park to take on Crystal Palace, managed by their old captain, Patrick Vieira.

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However, the identity of the current captain is still to be revealed, with Mikel Arteta yet to announce a permanent successor to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This despite the Gabonese forward losing the armband in December of last year and leaving the club the following month. These events are sure to be a highlight of Amazon Prime’s “All or Nothing” Docuseries on the club, juicily released the day prior to their opening fixture.

It is almost certain that Martin Ødegaard will take on the duties, having captained the Gunners in pre-season and in the last eight games of last season, to mixed success it must be said. He has the backing of both manager and players, with Arteta speaking glowingly of his leadership skills and Mohammed Elneny strapping the armband back around his arm at the end of last weekend’s 4-0 win over Chelsea, signifying his standing amongst the squad.

The Norwegian midfielder has previous, having been named national team captain in March of last year at the age of just 22. He’s also been earmarked as a future world star since his early teens, being the youngest player to play for both Norway and in their domestic league. Handling pressure should come natural to him because of this, as well as time spent at Real Madrid.

In addition to his own attributes, he is set to take on the role by near default given the sheer lack of alternatives in a very young squad – The Gunners have the youngest in the league, at an average age of just over 24.5. So-called “senior heads” include Elneny and Cedric Soares, both little more than squad players, and Granit Xhaka, whose own captaincy ended in ignominy.

The two actual possibilities both miss out for other reasons – Kieran Tierney has displayed leadership qualities throughout his career, captaining Celtic at the age of 20, but this has been accompanied by numerous injuries which have restricted him to just 64 Premier League games in his three seasons at The Emirates. Oleksandr Zinchenko, who is sure to deputise for the Scotsman at left back throughout this season, has similar traits, shown both on and off the field in recent times with Ukraine, but has only just joined from Manchester City.

Both Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus will be expected to add some experience and nous to a squad that was severely lacking in both at pivotal moments last season – notably at Tottenham and Newcastle, which cost the club a coveted top four spot. This was not helped by then-incumbent “men” in Arteta’s side like Alexander Lacazette, who seemed to go missing when the going got tough.

The captaincy decision is a major moment for both club and manager. It has been a long time since Arsenal have had a captain that the fans could be proud of, and the role has had a curse on it in recent times, almost in line with their fall from title winners/challengers to also-rans – largely similar to Manchester United.

The armband previously acted as a symbol of Arsenal’s prestige and excellence, held by players such as David O’Leary (most games in the club’s history), Tony Adams (most successful, longest serving and youngest skipper), Patrick Vieira (last to lift the title, Invincible) and Thierry Henry (their greatest ever). Since Henry’s departure, however, the captaincy has been a poisoned chalice, with those handed the role either being stripped of/disgracing it, leaving for, or ending up, at major rivals or simply past it as players.

In an odd call both now and then, Arsene Wenger made Willian Gallas his captain following Henry’s exit to Barcelona in 2007, over the obvious choice in Gilberto Silva. Despite starting well, Gallas’ captaincy crumbled like Arsenal’s title pursuit that season – starting with a tantrum at the end of a 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in February 2008. By November of that same year, Gallas’ time was up after outbursts at several players, namely Robin Van Persie and Samir Nasri. To add further insult, he then moved across North London to Spurs when his contract expired in 2010. Antics like this should have been predicted, given the eccentric French centre-back picked the no.10 shirt upon arrival at the Emirates.

The next two to follow were great captains in their time at the club, but both of whose legacies are tarnished (to what degree dependent on the fan) by what happened after they left. Cesc Fabregas, already the club’s most important player, replaced Gallas as skipper, at the age of just 21 – and just months older than Adams. His two-and-a-half seasons were a success on a personal level, with the Spaniard continuing to lead the league in assists, but without trophies, his final season being marked by a League Cup final loss to Birmingham. The 2011 summer saw Fabregas return home to Barcelona, a move accepted by most fans. But just three years later, he was at Chelsea, joining Wenger’s nemesis Jose Mourinho and winning two league titles with one of the club’s biggest rivals.

Van Persie took on duties for the 2011-12 season, with his 30 league goals landing him the Golden Boot and PFA Player of the Year, as well as dragging Arsenal to yet another top four finish. A continued lack of silverware resulted in the Dutchman joining Wenger’s other great rival, Fergie at Old Trafford after listening to the “little boy within.” A move utterly unthinkable not even five years prior, it acted as a symbol of the club’s decline.

This decline was further crystallised by captaincy appointments for the rest of Wenger’s time in charge, and that of Unai Emery’s. Thomas Vermaelen was rarely fit, Per Mertesacker was years past his prime and Laurent Koscielny left the club following a refusal to go on a pre-season tour to the US. After finally getting his desired transfer Bordeaux, the Frenchman further disrespected the club by taking off the famous red and white shirt to unveil his new side’s strop in a social media video, much to the chagrin of fans and club legends alike. This was followed by similar car crash captains in the shape of the aforementioned Xhaka and Aubameyang.

Arteta should know what makes a suitable Arsenal captain, having been club captain from 2014-2016 and acting skipper on numerous occasions in the years prior to that, even if he served as somewhat of a Wish Version of Fabregas, after replacing him in midfield in 2011. The decision to likely appoint Ødegaard is a significant step in his tenure as manager of the club. It is his first captaincy appointment as a manager, a statement of who he wants to be his on-field lieutenant and who he wants to lead “his” Arsenal. And make no mistake about it, this is his Arsenal.

Arteta has been strongly supported throughout his two-and-a-half-year spell, from being backed in the transfer market by the notoriously tight and uncaring Kroenkes – the Gunners have been Europe’s biggest spenders over the last two summers, to removing players he did not see as part of his Emirates Masterplan – cutting the contracts of seven players including Aubameyang, Willian and Mesut Özil.

As a result, this season has the feeling of “make or break” for the Spaniard. Having thrown away Champions League qualification at the death last season, it is imperative he lands it this time around, either through the Premier or Europa League. This task appears to be even more difficult given the addition of Thursday night football, Antonio Conte at Spurs and United surely not able to be as woeful as last season.

The captaincy appointment may set the tone for the Gunners’ season and for the remainder of Arteta’s time in charge. A night at Selhurst Park seems an apt place to start, given a 3-0 loss there last season. Will Ødegaard be the figurehead of a brave new era at the Emirates or another captain to add to the recent Hall of Shame? Will it be a new Arsenal or the one we have come to expect? We’ll soon find out.

The Author

Peter Fitzpatrick

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