When questioned about whether Arsenal have any natural leaders within the squad this season, Arsene Wenger has often responded by talking about "shared leadership" and, after the victory against Manchester United at Ashburton Grove, even talked about the team containing "eleven leaders". The Gunners’ last two performances have shown that either this theory is total bunkum or the current squad is only able to raise its game for big matches.
Saturday’s encounter with Sunderland was frustrating in the extreme. With Aston Villa having been beaten by Chelsea earlier in the day, there was a real opportunity to make some ground on the top four. The Gunners started brightly enough. Debutant Andrey Arshavin produced a couple of near misses and Robin Van Persie lobbed a shot wide with the hard work seemingly all done. The Black Cats also had a few chances of their own in a lively first half.
Following the interval though, Arsenal had the majority of the possession and created two or three gilt-edged chances to win the match that were all squandered - Carlos Vela being the main culprit. What was really disappointing though was the lack of urgency shown in trying to win this game. Even with the minutes ticking away, the Gunners could not summon any sort of gear-change to win the game. They plodded away and the longer the match went on the more one suspected they wouldn’t have scored if they had played until midnight. The match petered out into an exasperating nil-nil draw. Where were the natural leaders in this situation to exhort the team and demand greater exertions in the closing stages?
In contrast, the effort, energy and application shown by every player in the Champions League tie against Roma at Ashburton Grove last night could not be faulted. From the start, the Gunners played at a high tempo. When in possession, passes were zipped around the pitch. When not in possession, every player put in their shift to win the ball back. Roma were made to look very ordinary. The only criticism one could have of last night’s performance was the profligacy in front of goal. In the first half, Samir Nasri should have done much better with a free header. In the second, Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboue both ought to have added to the lead provided by Robin Van Persie’s first-half penalty conversion.
A second goal against Roma was deserved but not forthcoming and Arsenal’s recent problems with goalscoring have been well-documented. One can only hope that with Eduardo coming back from injury and the very positive-looking Andrey Arshavin getting match fit, this will change in coming weeks. But why is it that the team can look so fired up against Roma in the Champions League but so anaemic against Sunderland in the Premier League?
Surely the test of real leadership within a team is the ability to pick comrades up when they are under-achieving to obtain the result that is required? Clearly, this was lacking against Sunderland. It is easy for everybody to be a leader when the whole team is up for a game but where it really matters is in the ability to turn matches where things are not going right.
At the moment, Arsenal are a team playing without their designated captain while Cesc Fabregas recovers from his injury. But it is alarming to see the lack of back-up he appears to have within the squad. When the chips are down, it is courage and determination that makes a difference. Natural leaders can extract these qualities from others when things are going against the team. It does make you wonder whether Arsene Wenger has badly misjudged the leadership qualities of some of the players in his squad.
On Saturday Arsenal play Fulham at home in the Premier League and it is a game they absolutely have to win if they are to stay in touch with Villa and Chelsea. If they play like they did against Roma, it is unlikely they will have any problems. If they play like they did against Sunderland, it could be a different story. If this team genuinely shares leadership and responsibility for results, then Saturday is definitely the time to start showing it.