What Does A Leader Do On A Football Pitch?

Ever since the Denilson interview came in the public domain a lot has been said about the leadership issue at Arsenal. In all the talk, I didn’t notice many people talking about the role of a leader in a football team.

Lack of leadership at Arsenal is not a new topic. It’s been around for a while and crops up every now and then when the team seems to put a flat performance. I don’t buy most of the popular criticisms of the club but this is one where I see some merit.

Simply put, there are times when the performances are seriously below par and one wonders if it could have been better if there had been a leader on the pitch who could help or inspire everyone to raise their games.

I have shared this feeling often but have also been thinking about this issue for a while now. I asked myself, “Suppose there was a leader in the team, what could he do when the team is not performing?”

Can a player just stare at others and make them perform? Can he shout and improve the level of his teammates? Should he wave his arms around to lift everyone? In such a fast game, would a player get time to go and talk to individuals?

If four or five guys in a team are not playing at the level expected, what can one leader, or three leaders for that matter, do?

The next question is how often can they do this? If there are a couple of poor games every month, can the leader keep on making a difference? If not then does he lose his leadership after a point in time? Would it lead to situations like the ones with Gallas and some of the players?

As you can see, once you start thinking about it, it is a very complex issue.

I figured one of the ways of inspiring the team would be to lead by example. If the leader performs at his best the others will be motivated to do more.

So if Fabregas holds off pressure and plays some good passes or if Van Persie knocks on the opposition goal in tight situations, I guess other players will be fired up to give more.

On that front it seems to me that Arsenal do have leaders. Nasri showed it against Leeds, and later Fabregas came and controlled the situation. That is certainly one form of leadership. And we see that often enough. It’s not by accident that Arsenal have a better win percentage this season than Chelsea, Spuds, City or other teams.

Undeniably, there are days when this doesn’t work. Cesc might be a bit off form or playing with an injury. The opposition might be doing a good job of defending or pressing. There can be many reasons. What then?

If it happens to one odd player it can be managed but what if the game is really tight and the defence is under pressure? People panic, some players lose their composure and start hoofing the ball, the passing game is broken down, and a negative cycle starts. How does one arrest that given that the main player or players are out of form?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying nothing can be done or that what goes on at Arsenal is good enough. I’m trying to think in terms of specifics and not some general statements.

It’s easy to say there should be a leader. That’s like putting the onus on someone else without even trying to understand the problem. Fans can do that; after all the team’s performance is not their responsibility, fair enough. But once they do that they do lose credibility and, in my opinion, the right to criticize because they don’t know what they’re criticizing.

People claim to recall older games but forget that those teams lost plenty of big games and crucial encounters as well. To me that just seems like a convenient and at times lazy argument. Once again, it’s easy to say we had it in the past without knowing what ‘it’ really means.

We have a very good example of Chelsea right in front of us. They’ve the same players who had been winning a lot. Did they all suddenly lose their leadership? It’s not so easy when a bad patch strikes, is it? If a team of so many experienced players who have won many trophies can struggle, what can we expect from a team of young players who are all coming up the hard way? Can one or two guys coming in from the outside make a big impact?

To me it’s clear this is a complex issue. I can understand the idea of ‘shared leadership’ that Arsene talks about. Each individual must take responsibility for his own performances. Some players will have more flair, others might have more to offer physically, and so on. Individual characteristics vary. And depending on the situation in the game one quality might be more valuable than the others. In such a case the right person would have to step up and take charge.

On most days one would expect the best players in the team to lead from the front. Right now we’re seeing that with what is being loosely described at the first eleven. Nasri, RvP, and Cesc perform really well and that team is producing good results.

The second string didn’t have some good games but that could be down to one or two key players being out of form and one or two others just coming back from injury. Most of those players didn’t have a run of games. Many factors probably came together and we saw the impact on the performances.

I liked the way Arsene rotated against Leeds. By leaving Nasri in there, he ensured one of the key players was there to lead by example. It was a subtle change but made a big difference. If Wenger can manage his future team selections similarly I think we’ll be fine in majority of the games. Sometimes it won’t work and we just have to minimize those days.

These are just my thoughts on the topic and I haven’t formed a strong opinion yet. I’m sure there is more depth to this issue and there must be aspects that I haven’t covered in this post. Would love to know your considered thoughts on this.

42 Responses to What Does A Leader Do On A Football Pitch?

  1. jonnodgooner says:


  2. jonnodgooner says:

    nice article keep it up

  3. K-TR7 says:

    Always a nice read.keep it up.

  4. chpangemanan says:

    This is also one thing I’ve tried to reason with my mates for quite some time now. They always claim that this current team is spineless and therefore needs players like Mr. Arsenal or Paddy Vieira to hold the fort during bad patches. Sadly, people like to remember what they like more and start to generalize things. I mean, even during their reign as captains, we also had bad performances (some might even be worse). Just because we won things at those glory days doesn’t simplify the argument. That is just a lazy opinion.

    I agree with you when you said that we might not actually recognize what ‘it’ actually means and lazy journalism just makes it worse. We tend to jump on the wagons and think that just because those pundits on the telly said that the leadership is the matter, then boom! We are right behind them slagging off this team of lack of leadership, the very reason why we haven’t won anything in the past 5 years. Is it that simple? Surely not…

    Having said that, I do think that we need someone or more who can instill confidence against bigger oppositions and talk the team to endure the pressure and tension of the game. But, I’m realistic enough to say that it won’t always work.

    Leadership is the key, on and off the pitch. Be it by shared leadership, leading by example, or screaming from the bottom of their lungs just like those Spartans did in 300. Meh! Anyway, I’m just an armchair fan myself, so I’ll let you guys discuss more of this issue.

    Good issue to raise here mate, and really well written…

    • desigunner says:

      Agree with you about the need for confidence. I think that can come if we can have some more big performances like the City away and Chelsea/City home games, especially against United. Once these players do it, and they certainly can, they’ll get that belief, which would be very hard to bring from outside.

  5. Al-hatimy says:

    Well put and fantastic article,,,keep up

  6. ozziearsenal says:

    Arsenal leaders are all over the pitch Cesc often does a 30 meter run to press the other team at full pace Song rolls up is sleeves ready for the battle in midfield,RVP puts in a defenders tackle up front.Jack get stuck in to the battle, what I dont like is Arshaven who has improved in work rate but he jogs back into formation but does not go in for the tackle and he never changes his mood in a game,I wish he would get a bit firely.

  7. maman thea says:


    some people say that the leader can’t be produce but they will show when the situation needed… hmmm…

    maybe the players like cesc, nasri with their capability to influence the game ‘ll be better to make command to our warriors..

    just remember the spiderman uncle’s says..
    “With Great Power… comes Great Responsibility…

  8. The Saint says:

    The last really good leader that we had was Patrick Vieira and it’s no coincidence that that’s the last time we won anything. We inexplicably got rid of Gilberto who was the next best thing and we haven’t had a good leader since. Our best hope I believe is Chesney as he looks like a clone of Peter Schmeichel. Optimistically, I think Van Persie and Nasri have potential if they decide to step up to the challenge and give a rollicking to team mates who need a kick up the butt. Until we get a Adams/Vieira type leader again, we’ll have to wait ages for our next big trophy – Carling Cup does not apply.

    • Aniruddh Ingle says:

      Although I have immense respect for Vieira I have to admit he bottled under pressure at old Trafford (read: Pizzagate) and for all his experience and leadership he could not inspire us to the league title that we should have claimed and we finished the season with the FA cup that we did not deserve to win.

  9. Aniruddh Ingle says:

    We have to look no further than Vermaelen when it comes to leadership, he’s a born leader he rallies the back four and in turn they respond by putting in a decent shift. Chelsea have great leaders in Terry, Lampard and even Drogba to some extent but what they lack this year is youth whereas over the years they had the legs to cope with so many games (most of their squad was involved with the world cup as well)

  10. The BearMan says:

    We are so familiar with people in “Authority” barking and swearing at us in our everyday life, and we consider that negative behaviour as the main factor to produce given results.

    Cesc, style is leading by example and ofttimes carrying the team. In most games he puts in a 110% performance even when carrying an injury.

    I prefer Cesc style which inspires, rather than the BIG mouths that swears a lot and contribute nothing themselves. Arsenal fans need to remove the blinkers!

  11. David Costelloe says:

    If you play “traditional” English football, a Terry-style leader can intervene to change performance – “up and at’em guys”, as the team puts more aggression into its play. I’m not sure that can work for Arsenal’s football – we rely on precision, control, fleetness of foot – having a shouter to gee up the troops cannot make you pass more accurately, just punt it up the field harder.

    There may be something around defence – corners, and the like, where a vocal organizer can make a difference. However most of Arsenal’s poorer performances are where our work in the final third is not up to scratch.

    • desigunner says:

      Fair point. I guess Fabianski and Szczesny have quite been vocal this term although one might argue whether that is enough or not.

      If the player is having a technically poor day shouting might just disrupt him further. Perhaps a quick word of encouragement might help i.e. if someone like Cesc ran over and said “you’re doing well, don’t worry about the misplaced passes” or something like that.

  12. chpangemanan says:

    So what are actually the characteristics or traits of a leader then?

    Those who are working under big-mouthed boss often criticize this kind of leadership, while those who are underlings of calm authority may think that they lack of steel…

    Is it then possible that those gunners screaming for vieira-like captain have the situation like the latter? What they want the leadership in Arsenal mirror or unmirror what they have in their life?

    • Mark says:

      -someone who is respected
      -someone who has the vision to identify challenges and opportunities the team faces, and knows how to prompt the team into meeting those challenges and taking advantage of those opportunities

      And example: when arsenal seem really lacking in creativity and boldness in the final third, Cesc usually is that player who identifies this challenge, and sets the team in the right direction by simple going for a dash through the defensive lines, regardless of whether there is an opportunity to do so. this is leadership by example.

      • desigunner says:

        someone who is respected – that’s very important, especially in such a talented bunch of players.

  13. chpangemanan says:

    So what are actually the characteristics or traits of a leader then?

    Those who are working under big-mouthed boss often criticize this kind of leadership, while those who are underlings of calm authority may think that they lack of steel…

    Is it then possible that those gunners screaming for vieira-like captain have the situation like the latter? What they want the leadership in Arsenal mirror or unmirror what they have in their life?

    Anyone wants cendol, gan? :p

  14. Rash says:

    Nice article desi, I support the idea of shared leadership..that’s a winning team mentality and the invincibles was perfect example of shared leadership – Campbell, Veira, Henry…and yeah Mad Jens!

    I would also like to see Wenger or Pat Rice to stand on the touchline and shout…both of them are too quiet and often wrap themselves on bench when team is losing…that’s a big dissapointment for me.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  15. Ajinkya says:

    Really confused as to what a leader is in football after reading the article.
    Nevertheless everything must reduce to the point that, all the players must contribute and perform to their individual best, and most importantly support and co-operate.

  16. Sonu says:

    This topic certainly generates a lot of interest in the Arsenal community. As you said there are a lot of fine details that go into making a leader and there is no doubt that having a leader on the pitch helps the team raise their performance especially at a place like The Emirates where the crowd dont do their bit to lift the players.I think leadership in terms of football is to get all 11 players galvanised and raise their game when the chips are down. I do think that on a football pitch actions speak louder than words. Cesc has these capabilities and Im sure he can be a good leader for Arsenal.Having a good leader doesnt necessarily mean we may win all the games but the cliche, “we went down fighting.”is what will win over the fans and critics alike.

    • desigunner says:

      In most cases I agree that going down fighting is seen as a positive of sorts. But in Arsenal’s case these days it seems many people just link every poor result to the ‘no trophies’ argument and are eager to write the team off.

  17. King RVP says:

    Good read as usual also did enjoy the Bale Vs Walcott piece which was spot on.

  18. Phatye says:

    I have to give it to you Desi… you are one of the few sensible bloggers out there. Always a nice read.
    the type of leader people clamour for was with us till the end of last season, William Gallas, but we all know how we feel about him

  19. Stepanov's sidestep says:

    A true leader from the back is the final part required to complete our premiership winning team. We are second top scorers, but it is that maturity in defence which we are still obviously lacking, whereby we concede goals sometimes under no pressure or very little. With this player in place we can keep out those odd goalswhich turn what should be wins into silly draws or even surprise losses.Until then we may continue to find that final rung of the ladder too slippery.It is also leadership and solidarity at the back which can take us on that
    all important run of victories and clean sheets that we have not achieved for some time now.

  20. Tayo says:

    I am really appalled by how much Denilson ‘s comment has generated. We should realise that once in a while, we have agents of discord in a team either for selfish reason (like wanting to leave for Barcelona), or just to be recognised like Balloteli. I make bold to say that we have abundant leaders in Arsenal evident in the level of peace and serenity within the squad. The memory of Gallas & Adebayor already rotting in the palace of history. What i however think we need is a hero who scores that winning goal when it’s only seconds to go. Who sees possibilities in a hard situation, who avoids discord within the party. That’s what i see in Cecs, RV Persi and Nasri.

    • Mark says:

      lol Denilson said in that same interview that he was very happy with arsenal, it was his dream-club as a kid, and he wants to be at arsenal for years to come.

  21. Wrenny says:

    Another terrific article. It’s great to see this issue of leadership actually being broken down and spoken of logically.

    I think that ultimately there are two types of leadership – leading by example, and vocal leadership.

    I believe that we have a number of ‘example’ leaders – Cesc, RVP, Vermaelen, and most recently Nasri – who have the capacity to excite the crowd and increase the morale of the players around them. This is a very underrated form of leadership, players who can exercise such strong control over a game that it gives teammates a lift.

    The more conventional and attention-grabbing form of leadership is the vocal style, which is something that in my opinion we don’t seem to have so much of. But the question is, do we need it? Would our players respond to that? Would a barking sergeant actually improve the feeling within the team? And if so, is that something you can simply import into the team with a transfer – can you BUY that kind of leadership? Or is vocal leadership among your teammates something you must earn?

    I believe that if we go by two recent examples at Arsenal the answer is no, it cannot simply be bought. Although he was not captain, Mathieu Flamini was a very vocal player and a strong leader of the team in his last season with us. This was not a quality he had particularly exhibited before, but it really came to the fore in 07/08. He wasn’t afraid to shout and order other players in the team, but more importantly, the players being shouted at responded positively. You felt this was fostered out of mutual respect and friendship built over the years, and Flamini was *allowed* by his teammates to lead them.

    Compare that to the case of William Gallas, a vocal leader transplanted into the squad. He was made captain after just one season with us but many players didn’t seem to respond well to him. He famously fell out with Toure and Nasri, his leadership didn’t seem ‘welcome’ and created resentment among teammates.

    My feeling is that we could benefit from having a more vocal leader in the team, but this is something that will have to emerge from within the squad. We have a number of players I believe are capable of this, but their standing within the team, the trust and respect placed in them by their teammates, still has to grow. They will have to earn their leadership.

    • desigunner says:

      Excellent post. I agree, the right of being a vocal leader must be earned through consistent performances and the right kind of bonding on the training grounds.

      One other aspect that seems important is that such a leader would have to have a very good understanding of the roles of different players and the team philosophy. One cannot lead without understanding the other person’s point of view.

      It would be very difficult to bring someone like that in from outside.

  22. Mark says:

    sometimes i’m watching a game and thinking “someone take a player on; penetrate; have a bit more dare in the final third”, and usually Cesc is the player who hears my thoughts.
    this is a case of leading by example.
    it’s a shame Cesc doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his leadership.
    at least his team mates know it, which is what matters anyway.

    • desigunner says:

      I get the same feeling and most often someone or the other takes charge. Song did it against West Ham. Bendtner delivered against Wolves and Hull last season. Even Denilson had a say against Wolves. It’s on rare occasions that the whole team goes flat.

  23. santori says:

    Good topic Desi.

    Leadership (My opinion on what it needs) :

    1) Someone to organise the lads (keep the shape of the team), keep their focus and discipline.
    2) Someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck when the going gets tough
    3) Someone to lead by example

    I think Fabregas can do number 3 well and because he can dictate the tempo of the game with his excellent passing a bit of number 1.

    But I am not sure he is good at really digging deep when the chips are down (Not to say he isn’t trying on the pitch)

    To me, Vermaelen has the attributes to fulfill all 3.

    So my pref would also be for TV as captain (when he comes back into form) and then any of the following : Fabregas, RVP or Nasri.

  24. AtlanticGooner says:

    Desi, I hear what you’re saying.. It just seems to me that the whole leadership situation is a sort of clash of footballing cultures. ie. The traditional English captain who shouts and curses at his team like Roy Keane did at the Mancs, for example, vs the ‘new school’ Wenger approach of shared leadership. If there are many leaders rather than one dictator of a captain, perhaps it will be easier to pick up the slack at a time when things are going against you in a game.
    Another factor I wish to point out.. I have always thought that a good candidate for the armband has to be an established individual at the club, someone whose been around for a while and is generally looked up to by others. In the early 2000s, which was when I fell for the Arsenal, this fiure was Tony Adams. He then passed on the mantle to Patrick Vieira, who by this time had transitioned from the unknown signing made by Monsieur to an iconic member of our team and, hence, an obvious, natural successor to ole’ Tony. Not sure about you but I feel that the Adams-Vieira transition was about as smooth a transition as I have witnessed. Patrick then moved on to The Old Lady, leaving Thierry as the best candidate to replace him.. And rightly so. (although I personally am not comfortable with the idea of having your striker as your captain but that’s another matter)
    Now the trouble came when Thierry left and suddenly there was no ‘natural’ successor.. Well that’s cause we had pretty much turned over the team by then. So what other choice did Arsene have? Give it to the eldest member of the team. Thus, we had that 31 year old Mohawk-sporting dude, looking like he’s going thru a midlife crisis, as our captain. We all know how that ended up. But it is at this point where Arsene comes into himself, being ever innovative in the face of adversity. With a team full of young, ambitious, talented, footballers, he decided to give Cesc the armband, but yet make it clear that he is not THE leader of the team, but rather, one if many leaders.

    And, in retrospect, you really have to applaud him for how he handled the situation. He could have easily given Kolo the captaincy and let there be a reversal of power between Gallas and him, who already weren’t the best of friends, to say the least. Oh, the sparks really would have flown then. But Arsene saved us all the embarrassment, and cooly defused the situation by letting Kolo go that summer.

    Sorry for going off on a tangent. Now though, we can see the many leaders of the team stepping up in the form of Samir, Cesc, Robin and others. So clearly, Wenger has managed to change the situation to his advantage. Now obviously, the traditional English football fan might not like the idea of many ‘mini-captains’ but it works!

    • desigunner says:

      Till Gilberto I think Arsene got his captain’s choice right. Gallas had the fighting spirit but lacked some other qualities. I agree the person has to be an ‘Arsenal Man’ so to speak. Wilshere might be a good candidate a few years down the line although in my dreams I’d just wish Cesc to be there for years to come.

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