Why the Granit Xhaka controversy distracts from far deeper problems at Arsenal

The captain’s substitution – and his reaction to it – stole all the headlines on a deeply disappointing afternoon for the Gunners

Tom Kershaw
Tuesday 29 October 2019 08:03
Unai Emery says Granit Xhaka was wrong to swear at fans

The problem is that, when a stadium turns into an exorcism, ushering you out in a seance of boos, pride leaves you with little choice but to defend yourself. They may be 60,000 disgruntled fans, enraged not just by your very existence in their world but your audacity to continue doing so, and you may just be one under-performing defensive midfielder, but, right now, this is your hill and you're going to die on it.

It was Granit Xhaka’s pride that overshadowed Arsenal’s deeply disappointing 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace and inherited William Gallas’ cursed legacy in the process.

With a two-goal cushion relinquished, a howl of snide cheers greeted the captain’s substitution on the hour mark. As the cheers turned to something altogether more sinister, Xhaka elected not to stand idly by, choosing instead to wave his arms, to beckon on the mob. You see once you’ve already sped halfway down the road to perdition, you might as well roll down the windows and let the breeze hit you with everything its got.

So off he marched, ripping off his shirt and throwing it to the floor as he went as the emotion of the moment finally gave way to the expletives.

If only it wasn’t Arsenal, it would’ve all felt a little more astonishing, and a lot less pantomime.

“He was wrong, he was wrong,” Unai Emery said afterwards. “His reaction was wrong. We are here because we have supporters. In football we are the workers inside [the pitch], but we play for them. We need to have respect for them when they are applauding us and also when they are criticising us.” All true, of course, but slightly tinged coming from a manager only too happy to accept a human shield to put between himself and those howling for his own head.

And so, after a relatively positive start to the season, Arsenal are mired by a familiar chaos. Lucas Torreira teared up on the touchline and had to be consoled by Hector Bellerin. Alexandre Lacazette ‘liked’ an Instagram post saying Xhaka can “go f**k himself” and Emery should be sacked; Mesut Ozil is launching a PR offensive against the club, who’ve responded by insisting the decision to ostracise their highest-paid player has united backing from the hierarchy; all played out in front of a fractured crowd baying for the next round of bloodletting. Even the classiness, that famed old mystique installed by Arsene Wenger, has now been traded in for a modern day account of Lord of the Flies, as written by Arsenal Fan TV.

In Ozil’s absence, Xhaka has become the scapegoat; inheriting that particular nasty cross to bear from the likes of Theo Walcott and Shkodran Mustafi before him. Some resent him for being the captain, others simply because he is a symbol of a disjointed playing philosophy and is prone to the most clumsy of errors with a habit of not always facing up to them.

His presence in the starting eleven has been divisive, but that responsibility is actually a result of Emery’s own dithering indecision around the armband and the consequent compulsion to pick a player anointed by his teammates, rather than risk losing a fragile dressing room by consigning a below-par player to the bench.

Xhaka’s response was ugly and ill-considered, a product of weeks of discontent that finally reached a tipping point. To the majority of Arsenal fans, it was inexcusable and unforgivable. But when a player is made to walk like a sacrificial lamb, it can only be so long before they either implode or explode. In this case, it felt like we might have seen both.

The sight of a crowd turning on one of its own in a display of such mobbishness was equally as gruesome. And, for a few minutes, the aftershock seemed to suspend the stadium, half in anger, half in guilt, and the lack of any middle ground felt eerily symptomatic of a club swaying from one extreme to another.

Now Emery’s patched-up Arsenal head to Liverpool for a Carabao Cup tie that threatens ritual humiliation and red and white sleeved roadkill. Then the in-form Wolves and Leicester await to tuck into whatever remains.

But what is clear is that, as some supporters celebrate Xhaka’s purgation, the pride of a wounded captain is far from the reason why Arsenal continue to fight a losing battle, and it’s hard to find any glory in the sacrifice.

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