24 November 2008

An honour or a burden?

What does it mean to be a captain?

Certainly, it varies.

In cricket, for instance, the captain is responsible for key on-field tactical decisions such as bowling changes and field placements. It’s similar in rugby union; the NFL too – team captains have the ability to profoundly alter a game with a tactical call here and a play change there. That’s much less the case in football, largely because of the faster, more organic flow of a game. Pause for thought and tactical adjustment is more difficult, and the role of captain is more one of leadership by example and exhortation than anything else.

Different people approach the captaincy challenge in different ways - David Beckham was a quiet captain who gave 100% and led by example; Michael Vaughan was considered, cerebral and inclusive; John Terry is an up-and-at-‘em type of leader – but the ultimate goal remains the same: to ensure that the whole of the team adds up to more than the sum of its individual parts, and performs to its maximum capability.

No matter what, a captain is always in some way a leader: someone to whom teammates look to for guidance, inspiration and a good example.

Which is where Arsenal’s William Gallas has failed spectacularly, on every count.

Nine months after a display of petulance against Birmingham City – kicking an advertising hoarding and sitting down in a sulk after the concession of a late penalty - behaviour which was shameful from any professional, let alone a captain, Gallas was eventually stripped of the club captaincy.

The final straw was a series of public revelations last week – it is of course entirely coincidental that he is promoting his autobiography – which insinuated the following:
- He thinks it's unfair that, as captain, he is being singled out as the sole cause of Arsenal’s current poor form, and that the media needlessly keep revisiting what happened at Birmingham
- That he had to break up a heated argument in the dressing room at half-time during the recent 4-4 draw with Tottenham.
- During Euro 2008, he had a verbal contretemps with a young French international colleague, to whom he refers as “S”, which suggested they were never likely to become friends – it is widely assumed that S is Arsenal teammate Samir Nasri.
- That there is a younger player at Arsenal who is poisoning the dressing room and who has disrespected him on the field – Gallas didn’t name him but said he was six years younger than him (Gallas is 31) – it is generally assumed he is referring to Robin van Persie, one of only three 25-year olds in the Arsenal squad.

There is an unwritten law in football - indeed, in most team sports – that internal team issues are kept within the dressing room. The current problems at Arsenal are hardly unusual – when things are going badly, a degree of conflict is likely, even desirable – and Gallas’s revelations of half-time arguments were largely met with a “Yeah, and…?” response. What is unusual is for any player, even a disaffected one, blowing the whistle on his teammates. When it does happen, it generally says more about the character of the teller of the tales than their subjects.

For the captain to be the tittle-tattle just makes it worse. How can any player with an issue consult a captain who makes such problems public? And while it’s fine for a captain to complain about his lot in life, to do so by shifting blame and scattering accusations left, right and centre – and then effectively naming and shaming the alleged culprits – to the detriment of team morale is not the act of a good leader. It’s the act of a spoilt brat.

Arsene Wenger’s response was swift and inevitable. Gallas was deposed as captain and dropped from the squad for Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City – a game which clearly demonstrated what can happen to a team lacking clear leadership – and his future at the club must now be considered uncertain.

Yes, Gallas’s outburst in the Birmingham game has been repeatedly used as a stick with which to beat him. Yes, there were mitigating circumstances insofar that this was the game in which Eduardo da Silva suffered a horrific broken leg and emotions had been running high throughout the game. But for a defender to walk away from the action when he might have been needed to clear the ball had the penalty been saved was both unprofessional and self-indulgent in the extreme. For the captain, doubly so. (As a manager at work, if someone in my team makes a mistake, I don’t yell at them and then go home in a strop. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s counter-productive.)

Many argued that Gallas should have been immediately stripped of the captaincy that day; others countered that at least he was showing he cared. For me, the only thing it showed was that, when push comes to shove, William Gallas cares only about William Gallas, period. And his remarks last week, even if taken out of context, only serve to reinforce that view. What Gallas said was so thoughtless and selfish that it was the antithesis of what captaincy and leadership should be about.

It is apparent that Gallas, with his attempts to shift the blame for the team’s problems onto others, regarded the role of captain as more of a burden than an honour.

It’s an attitude in stark contrast to, say, John Terry who was thrilled to captain England last week. After a mix-up with Scott Carson which led to Germany’s goal in the 2-1 win, he took personal responsibility for what was a 50:50 error and saw it as his role as captain to urge his team on to do something about it. Now that’s stepping up as a leader.

William Gallas is a very good footballer. However, in the same way that great players don’t automatically become great managers, they don’t necessarily make the best captains either.

After the events of the last few days, it’s clear Gallas doesn’t fit the captaincy mould. As critical as I've been of him both here and in the past, that’s not a crime, though. It’s time for both him and Arsenal to move on. Whether the best solution is reconciliation or divorce remains to be seen.

12 November 2008

Teenage kicks 2

Arsenal 3 Wigan 0

As has become habitual in the Carling Cup, it was men against boys at the Emirates last night. And, not for the first time, this morning everyone is eulogising Arsene Wenger's 'galactikids'.

OK, so it wasn't 6-0 this time, as it was against Sheffield United in the previous round, but it could easily have been if not for some top-class saves by Chris Kirkland. And even though the visitors had a clear penalty denied when still only 1-0 down, Wigan manager Steve Bruce was quick to admit his team had been thoroughly outplayed: the gulf in class was that obvious.

8 of the 11 Arsenal starters last night are teenagers, including a 16-year old, Jack Wilshere, who dazzled all night with his quick feet and earned the man of the match award. To put this into context, the precocious Theo Walcott, himself a callow 19-year old, would have been Arsenal's fourth-oldest outfield player last night.

And it's not the result that impresses the most: it's the style in which it was accomplished. This side played without fear or inhibition, and they did so playing the same brand of football the first team employs, neat one and two-touch passing and movement which, when it works, leaves frustrated opponents chasing shadows.

Last night it worked beautifully against a near-full strength Wigan side who seemed at times utterly bereft of ideas to stop their youthful opponents. The Emirates is not a stadium which sees many scrappy goals, and yesterday was no exception. Wilshere's slide-rule ball set up Jay Simpson (a comparative veteran at nearly 20) for the opener - Cesc Fabregas and Liam Brady would both have been proud of the pass. A lightning counter-attack covering the length of the field saw Carlos Vela unselfishly square for Simpson to tap in the second. And then Vela himself finished the job, timing his run perfectly to chase on to a through ball to execute, at full speed and holding off a defender's challenge, a delicate one-touch lob over the advancing Kirkland.

They were three goals any team would have been proud of. Major kudos should go not only to Wenger and the players, but also to Brady, who heads up the club's youth development programme, and to Steve Rowley, whose network of scouts is responsible for re-stocking a conveyor belt of young talent which seems to grow stronger with every passing year.

The club's approach to ticketing should also be applauded. To ensure a packed ground, tickets for last night's game were reduced to just £10 (£5 for kids and pensioners), bringing in new fans who might otherwise never attend a game. In a game which is increasingly driven by cash (and for a club with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt to pay off) that's no small gesture.

The Carling Cup may be considered a minor irritant by many clubs, but I'm particularly pleased at the way my club approaches it, in terms of both the playing and the adminstrative side of it. Even if we don't win the trophy, there is so much to be proud of already.

And watch out for players such as Wilshere, Vela, Simpson, Fran Merida and Gavin Hoyte, not to mention current senior squad members Alex Song, Johan Djourou and Aaron Ramsey. To the wider world, these are the stars of tomorrow. To Arsenal fans privileged enough to have watched this current Carling Cup run, they are already stars today.

3 November 2008

There can be only one

If this was a Hollywood script, it would have been thrown out on the grounds of implausibility. And yet last night, in suitably foreboding gloom – five minutes after the chequered flag, Interlagos was shrouded in blackness - the battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship hinged on an overtaking move on the penultimate corner of the final lap of the final grand prix of an absorbing 2008 season.

The catalyst was a rain shower with five laps remaining, which caused many to pit for intermediate tyres. But the key players in the drama were effectively bit-part extras: first Robert Kubica and then Timo Glock.

With two laps left, Lewis Hamilton was clinging on to the fifth place he needed to guarantee the title, but he had Sebastian Vettel climbing all over him. Enter the BMW of Kubica, faster at that point than both Hamilton and Vettel, but a lap down. The Pole unlapped himself, but in allowing him past Hamilton appeared to run wide on the ‘marbles’ off the racing line, allowing Vettel to slip by too.

All of a sudden a safe fifth was a desperate sixth, and with Felipe Massa leading comfortably, it appeared the British driver’s title hopes were gone. Clearly at his car’s limits, Hamilton tried to haul Vettel back in, to no avail. It was only after Massa had crossed the line – cut to shots of a jubilant Ferrari garage, who believed their man had just secured the title – that it became apparent that Glock, who had leapfrogged Vettel and Hamilton by staying out on dry-weather tyres and started the final lap 18 seconds ahead of the pair, was struggling to keep his car on the rapidly dampening track. To the disbelief of the millions watching around the world, Vettel swept past the crawling Toyota as they approached the final corner, followed in rapid order by Hamilton, regaining the all-important fifth place that put him back ahead of Massa.

At 23, Hamilton becomes the youngest F1 champion ever, five months younger than former team-mate Fernando Alonso when he won the first of his two titles. It’s a wonderful feat, doubly so given the pressure he was under having capitulated in a similar position last year.

It was, however, desperately hard luck on Massa, who had driven superbly through the second half of the season, eating away at Hamilton’s advantage and ultimately winning one more race (six) than the Briton.

Both drivers can lay a strong claim to being the better driver over the course of the season. Each drove impressive, dominant races, but also made major mistakes: Massa most notably an error-strewn drive in the wet at Silverstone; Hamilton a no claims bonus-losing shunt in the pit-lane in Canada. At some races, Ferrari had the dominant car; at others, McLaren. Massa will point to three races (Australia, Hungary, Singapore) where mechanical or team failures cost him dearly; Hamilton’s car was bulletproof but dubious stewards’ decisions in Belgium and Japan robbed him of valuable points.

However, the standings do not lie. Hamilton, 98 points; Massa, 97: the same margin by which Hamilton lost the title last year.

There can be only one winner, and in 2008 that is Lewis Hamilton. He scored more points than any other driver, and is therefore a worthy world champion.

However, without taking anything away from Hamilton’s achievement, by his actions both on and off the track Massa has also proven that he merits consideration as a future champion. In previous seasons, I have dismissed him as fast but erratic, lacking the necessary steel to sustain a season-long tilt. But over the second half of 2008, his focus, consistency and outright speed have been hugely impressive, despite a mechanical failure in Japan and a pit-crew error in Singapore which cost him certain wins and would have demoralised a lesser driver.

In the most difficult of circumstances last night, Massa conducted himself impeccably, thanking both his team and the home crowd for their support, and completing the podium ceremony and post-race press conference with dignity.

(Incidentally, how stupid is Formula 1 that the new world champion, by virtue of finishing outside the top three in the race, does not get to appear on either the podium or in the press conference?)

In those brief minutes the disappointment was, understandably, written all over Felipe Massa’s face, but in his darkest moment he also looked every inch a team leader and future champion.

There can be only one winner of the ultimate prize each season. And yet yesterday I’m sure I saw two champions.

One final note. In the cold light of day, it’s easy to dismiss Hamilton’s championship win as lucky. Yes, he made mistakes throughout the season. Yes, it ultimately required someone else’s misfortune to hand him the championship. And yes, he’s no Michael Schumacher (at least not yet).

However, it’s easy to forget that the Schumacher who won the first of his seven titles in 1994 was no Michael Schumacher either, hitting a wall mid-race in the Adelaide title-decider and only securing the title thanks to the most dubious of manoeuvres on Damon Hill. Domination of a sport only happens over a long period of time, and Lewis Hamilton is just at the beginning of that particular journey. It will be fascinating to see whether he takes the next step in 2009, and how strongly Felipe Massa (and others) will respond. Roll on next season.