Despite the stereotype over the silent atmosphere, it’s never usually quiet at the Emirates. Last Sunday’s match against Crystal Palace was no exception. Arsenal were two goals ahead and capitulated for the second league match in a row that they led by that margin. Previously, the Gunners had won 49 consecutive Premier League games in that scenario. Yet the narrative to emerge wasn’t about another capitulation or more dropped points. It centred around Granit Xhaka, his substitution, and the reaction of both he and the fans.
First things first, let’s establish the timeline. The match was 2-2 when the Swiss midfielder’s number was held up, and Arsenal were looking for a winner. In this scenario, especially as the captain of the club, you should run off the pitch as quickly as possible. Xhaka didn’t. His replacement, Bukayo Saka, is obviously a more attacking option, and I think that is why the substitution was initially cheered. It was an ironic reaction. Emery, who is increasingly conservative with his midfield, decided to bring on a young winger – there was a genuine sense of surprise. Obviously, there was a sense of relief/happiness at Xhaka himself being the one withdrawn. It is well-known he isn’t universally popular. So as he trudges off the pitch, tossing the armband to Aubameyang in frustration, boos start to echo around the ground. The annoyance was at least as much to do with the fact he is ‘wasting time’ and killing the momentum Arsenal were trying to build. This is when he cups his hand to his ear and encourages the taunting. At this point, fans who previously weren’t in the initial wave of dissent turn on him; now they feel attacked. The boos turn to jeers, and anger emanates from both parties as Xhaka tells the supporters, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of them. Brushing past Emery, he angrily balls his shirt up and storms off down the tunnel. That, as far as I remember and am concerned, is what happened.
I’ll start the ‘analysis’ of the situation by saying I think if he throws the shirt to the ground, that’s it. You can’t tolerate the club captain ‘disrespecting the shirt’ in that way, purely from an optics standpoint. The man who is supposed to be the leader of the club can’t discard the visual representation of it so aggressively. Arguably, he has already crossed that line; I believe he has. I think the club have a responsibility to ensure the situation doesn’t deteriorate further, and that all the uncertainty is resolved. It has moved beyond sorting out the issue on the pitch – it is now emblematic of the problems off it. Xhaka is said to have been annoyed with how his appointment as captain was handled in the first place. Emery dithered for so long that he clearly showed a lack of faith in Xhaka as a leader; the same would have been said about whomever emerged with the responsibility. Consulting the players is a bizarre move and must have just added to Xhaka’s annoyance. Were I in that situation, I would have been annoyed with the manager too. So, whilst I empathise with him, I don’t that should be used as a mitigating factor.
This takes me to Xhaka as a player. I have been a vocal critic of him, and I will stand by that criticism. He isn’t mobile enough to play as the solo deep midfielder. There are other options available that have proven themselves more suitable to modern football, and any semblance of a style the manager is trying to implement. There also have to be questions over how his mentality affects his style of play. There were plague-ridden medieval peasants less rash than Xhaka, he receives more cards than Brad Pitt on Valentine’s Day, and he is as erratic as Donald Trump before his morning Diet Coke. He doesn’t display the calm, almost serene presence you need as a captain. Especially in a side as unpredictable as Arsenal, you have to have a steady hand at the wheel. This is why players like Arteta and Mertesacker remained as captains through spells on the side-line. Not only do they embody the progressive values of the club off the pitch, but they exude a maturity on it. That being said, I also maintain that Xhaka’s flaws are woefully exposed by the formation and instruction given to him. I think he realises this. After the defeat to Sheffield United, he came out and said Arsenal need to stop looking for excuses over their mentality. He also described the team as being “scared”. It sounds like the noises of a player annoyed by the conservatism of his coach, and specifically the way he is being told to play. It almost reminds me of the way Guendouzi, in the latter stages of some matches this season, has gone into ‘f*ck it mode’. He seems to adopt the adage ‘grab the game by the scruff of the neck’ with anger, and in defiance of how the game has played out previously. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe he isn’t ‘rebelling’. Yet it would be a bizarre tactical instruction to tell a player: “ok – good ebening – after 70 minutes I want you to play like a wind-up race car with the grace and power of Vieira”. I think the frustration he displayed was partly a result of his overall frustration with his role, the team’s continual struggle, and the entire captaincy debacle. He has become a lightning rod, like Mustafi last season, like Ozil, Giroud, Ramsey, and so many other Arsenal players in the past – fans are to an extent channelling their anger about the entire situation at the club into one person. Your mileage may vary as to what extent that is fair (I’m not about to write 1000 words on the redemption of Shkodran), but I think it is true.
You also need to factor in the abuse he receives on social media. Announcing the birth of his child on Instagram – another reason he may be stressed – people commented … well … like people tend to on the internet. Asking him to take extra paternity leave was the nicest thing you were likely to see. His wife has been the victim of abuse online, and all this must have boiled up in Xhaka. Understandably so to me; if you are the kind of person who attacks a player or his family on social media, I wish you’d never gotten this far. Rightly or wrongly, Xhaka would be entitled to think some of the people that abuse him on social media were the same people booing him as he walked off the pitch. Maybe he felt this was his only outlet, his only response that would get noticed. I doubt it had the desired affect; it was just an outburst of emotion. This is clearly echoed by certain members of the squad; you just have to see how visibly upset Torreira at the whole scenario. Even if there are reportedly splits as to whether Xhaka should remain captain, I think there is a huge amount of support for him emotionally. Thankfully the club have acted swiftly on this account and offered him counselling.
So, we move to the manager and hierarchy of the club. They have thus far failed to act decisively. I was expecting an official announcement regarding the captaincy before the Liverpool game. All we have had of substance is that Emery has asked him to publicly apologise, and Xhaka has either refused to do so or is less than pleased about the prospect. Emery labelled his actions as “wrong” and didn’t bring the Swiss midfielder as part of the squad in the Carabao Cup match against Liverpool. After the game, he refused to say whether Xhaka would even be involved in the squad against Wolves this weekend, let alone shed any light on the captaincy issue. He hasn’t even stated whether any fine had been administered; even the most ardent Xhaka fan would be hard-pressed to say he doesn’t deserve that. It’s another example of indecision from the Head Coach. Add to that his handling of Mesut Ozil, the latest twist of which was his inclusion against Liverpool midweek.
Ozil’s name was being chanted at half-time against Crystal Palace, in what appeared to be an act of defiance against the manager. How else can a player previously lambasted, and who few consider the ‘solution’ to Arsenal’s troubles at the moment, suddenly become a rallying cry? It felt to me as though starting him at Anfield was Emery trying to find an excuse. By playing well, the German has arguably put his manager in a harder position. It would be even more strange if he were omitted again from the Premier League squad on Saturday. Having been effectively hung out to dry, it feels like Ozil has wetted the appetite of the fans. Fundamentally he is still the same player with the same flaws. The reasons why he and Emery are not a match made in footballing heaven are the same. The reason why he is not the solution is the same. But because of the frustration over how the team is performing, ‘even Ozil’ is seen as better than what is currently happening on the pitch; I agree to an extent with the ‘how bad could it be’ attitude. Two players, two examples of poor man-management by Emery, and two examples of bad tactical deployment as well. The Spaniard certainly has to accept some responsibility for the current situation. I think his handling is making it worse.
So where does that leave Arsenal? It’s no secret that there is a leadership problem at the club. The previous captain left in the Summer, as did three of the other five anointed leaders. The one left at the club, Ozil, is being pushed out the door and marginalised. The previous captains, Mertesacker and Arteta, although great characters were never regular starters in their latter seasons. I think the hierarchy need to look at both the present and the future of the club. Hector Bellerin is first choice right back and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Aubameyang is the talismanic striker and has dragged Arsenal kicking and screaming into their current position. One of these two should be given the armband permanently. There is little question as to their importance to the side, and both are widely loved by fans. Allow Bellerin to develop more leadership qualities, with an eye to giving him the ‘job’ in the future is one approach. Or, you can look at the passion he displays and the way he conducts himself off the pitch, and realise he is a man fully-grown. Eloquent, charitable, progressive, and strong in his beliefs – all values I like to think Arsenal as a club represents.
Does Xhaka have a future? I think it would be foolish to say he will never play for Arsenal again. But beyond this season, especially if Emery stays, it is hard to know if the relationship and trust can ever be rebuilt – with both the manager and the fans.