Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Passion of Mikel Arteta

In the month of January, the trials endured by Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta intensified.

Most recently, he had to stand by silently as his employment security came under question. Arteta's agent Inaki Ibanez told Foot Mercato on 27 January that the club had extended the captain's contract until June 2016. Manager Arsène Wenger, however, made no such commitment in his press conference before Sunday's victory over Aston Villa. Asked about Arteta's contract, Wenger said, "We have nothing to announce yet."

These mixed public messages about Arteta's contract appeared while his in-game influence, the most obvious expression of a club's captaincy, was waning. Arteta hasn't featured for the team since departing Arsenal's 2-0 Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund in late November.

His absence became extended in mid-January when he underwent surgery to repair a bone spur in his ankle. He will likely not recover until mid-April, meaning he won't appear for the first team until May at the earliest. By that point, he will have missed 27 of Arsenal's 38 Premier League fixtures.

Such an inactive season has to be a worry for a soon-to-be 33-year-old and especially for one whose contract ends this summer. He no longer seems indispensable either, due to the assured performances of Francis Coquelin in his position (though Arteta does not seem the type to begrudge teammates their individual successes).

In this context, it would be only a mild surprise -- but a huge sadness for many -- if Arteta doesn't play another competitive match in Arsenal colors.

Arteta's importance

The reason for the sadness is that many will recognize the important role Arteta has played in the club's trajectory. He has ushered the club through the transition from its youth project, a response to the financial restrictions created by the Emirates Stadium construction, to the current and likely last version of Wenger's Arsenal, which I have called "Arsenal 3.0." (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.")

The midfielder arrived from Everton at a tumultuous time and provided a steadying influence. Recall August 2011: Captain and star Cesc Fabregas had demanded a move to Barcelona, while another midfield talent, Samir Nasri, had been sold to Manchester City. The result was an unsettled squad and an 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United.

Yet thanks in part to Arteta's calmness in midfield, Arsenal overcame its early season struggles and finished third in the Premier League, essential for yet another Champions League qualification. Arteta's late strike against Manchester City, giving Arsenal a 1-0 home win in April 2012, was particularly important.

Arteta's contributions deepened and broadened the following season, when he became, with Santi Cazorla, the team's top performer. Some observers, such as 7AM Kickoff's Tim Bostelle, named him their player of the season for 2012-13.

Indeed, Arteta emerged over that campaign and the next as one of the Premier League's standout deep-lying midfielders, as shown in the following statistics from Squawka.com:

As with any set of numbers, this one does not tell the whole story. However, the stats do show that Arteta has competed with the best in the Premier League.

Arteta's position among Wenger's captains

Arteta has performed at this high level while equaling or exceeding his counterparts' leadership contributions. Many have watched Arteta's demeanor and concluded that he's not a strong leader because he doesn't point, shout, and intimidate. But his leadership qualities are remarkable in the way they have helped him -- and Arsenal Football Club -- navigate a changing captaincy.

Here are Arsenal's first-team captains during Wenger's 18-year tenure:
  • Tony Adams, 1996-2002
  • Patrick Vieira, 2002-05
  • Thierry Henry, 2005-07
  • William Gallas, 2007-08
  • Cesc Fabregas, 2008-11
  • Robin Van Persie, 2011-12
  • Thomas Vermaelen, 2012-14
  • Mikel Arteta, 2014-present

Setting aside the Gallas disaster, we can discern a trend in the dominant traits of Wenger's captains. The first two, Adams and Vieira, were vocal and tenacious. They were the first into a scrap. Henry was just as tenacious, but in a different way: He was unrelenting in pursuit of goals. He was also obviously the star of the team.

After Henry's departure and the Gallas interregnum, talent defined the next two club captains, Fabregas and Van Persie. They were, like Henry, the headliners of their Arsenal sides; given the inconsistent ability around them, the captaincy may have partly been a tool to secure their loyalty. It failed.

Then came the appointment of Vermaelen. He was not the club's star player, nor was he vocal. Vermaelen's foremost quality was his professionalism. He conducted himself with thoughtfulness and class, and in that way, he became an extension of the club's management. Holding that as a priority guided the choice of Arteta.

Exercising new responsibilities

The qualifications of an Arsenal first-team captain have therefore changed. It's no longer enough to be the club's most vocal, tenacious, or talented player. The captain has to be a professional ambassador for all the club's activities, accomplished in board rooms, with the media, at charity events, with teammates, and with supporters.

Not all clubs are viewing the captaincy in these terms. See Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. But even Joey Barton, the Queen's Park Rangers captain who does not fit the Arteta mold, has hinted at the importance of professional management in a captain, even as he struggles with that aspect of the role. Barton has written: "As captain you are the go-between for the manager and the players on a daily basis. But there are times at football clubs when a captain’s role goes further. This has happened to me at QPR. There can be any number of issues that can cause board members or owners to ask a captain’s opinion."

To represent the players and the club in the modern, corporate game, the captain must take on the duties and qualities of professional management. That's especially true of Arsenal Football Club because it is aware of its position in the public eye. The club's role in the community and its relationships with diverse constituencies call for a captain with leadership skills that go beyond supporting or criticizing teammates during matches.

Wenger and his colleagues appear to have recognized these new requirements when they appointed Vermaelen captain. Arteta's captaincy has solidified the trend, as he has fulfilled the new management role gracefully and perfectly in a season that might have broken the spirits and conduct of lesser characters. This will be a meaningful legacy even if injuries cut short Arteta's tenure as captain.

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