Teams need leaders for sustained successA top European football club, with the riches of the modern game at their disposal, may buy all the talent it can but without a leader, whether it is on the pitch or off it, it has little chance of success.
It is not a coincidence that team sports like football, cricket and rugby were invented in Great Britain and that the sun never set on the British Empire once up a time. While there may have been sociological studies as to why these team sports as well as other individual ones like golf and tennis started and grew there, the role of the sport to build character in individuals cannot be doubted. The attritional battle between bat and ball in Test cricket, the pure form of the game, the batsman playing for the team rather than individual glory, the harmony of the scrum in rugby are examples of character building and teamwork as a team.
A lot of the sport is a test of mental fortitude of the player. Just as talent is not developed overnight, this strength within one is also built over the years. During their scouting, European football clubs do not just want talented players, they also look for ones with the requisite character to fit into the team.
Besides an aggregate of talented players with mental strength, there is something else that makes a team click. A top European football club, with the riches of the modern game at their disposal, may buy all the talent it can but without a leader, whether it is on the pitch or off it, it has little chance of success. Think of Sir Alex Ferguson. Besides his tactical nous and his ability to make teams evolve over the long run, his steely determination and leadership qualities was what made Manchester United the most storied of English clubs. So vaunted were his leadership qualities the world over that Harvard Business School invited him to run a summer course.
While his hair dryer treatment to any player not following is way well known, the current darling of English football, Liverpool, is another sort of leader. The warmth with which German Jurgen Klopp acknowledges players after a game is telling of this man’s management ways and the way he takes them into his confidence. Since he joined Arsenal as first team coach, Mikel Arteta has been lauded for bringing a system in a dysfunctional team. He has won players over and those who don’t buy into his way are discarded the way Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi have been. Leadership is about belief.
But it is the players who take to the field, not the coach. Without a leader, or even leaders, on the pitch, sustained success is well nigh impossible. Ferguson had Roy Keane. His nemesis Arsene Wenger has Patrick Viera for Arsenal. Jose Mourhino at Chelsea had John Terry. They had the respect of the dressing room and demanded a lot from their teammates. They made their teams function. Liverpool has Virgil van Dyke and it was only after he joined that an evolving Liverpool finally won important trophies.
Before the arrival of Liverpool, Manchester City was the team to beat. Since the Abu Dhabi riches came in 2008, this way the team was a mid-table one in the Premier League. Soon expensive signings were made but they had to wait till the 2011-12 season to become the champions in Europe. The year before, Vincent Kompany had been given the captain’s armband.
Again, Kompany’s elevation to the captaincy and City winning the league is no coincidence. That he had joined the club before oil riches funded the spending spree at the club is also telling.
The importance of Kompany to the club was evident in the 2018-19 season when City pipped Liverpool to the post by a solitary point. His rocket of a goal against Leicester City in the dying minutes of that season will go down in the club’s folklore.
Kompany left the club at the end of that season. Not only did his club lose a rock at defence, although he had been struggling with injuries in the last few seasons, but a leader. Last year City were rudderless and Liverpool strutted to the title after their European glory the previous year. This year, their swatting aside of Arsenal in the last round of fixtures is evidence enough that this will be a repeat. They, to Ferguson’s dismay, will share the perch with Manchester United to be the most successful team in English top flight football with 21 titles apiece.
Pep Guardiola had never conceded five goals in his managerial career. Last weekend he did against Leicester City. There seemed to be a lack of desire in the team and the manner of defeat was humiliating. Buying defenders is not the only answer.
They need a leader, someone to step up. Looking at the team sheet, there is not anyone likely. But for City’s sake, and for the sake of fans of the Premier League, let’s hope someone does soon. A one-horse race makes poor viewing.