Image Credits: The Guardian
Granit Xhaka has become public enemy number one among Arsenal fans. The newly appointed captain provocatively goaded the Emirates faithful after he was booed off against Crystal Palace on Sunday.
Arsenal had appeared comfortable, and in the driving seat of this Premier League match, having found themselves 2-0 up within 9 minutes, thanks to unlikely goals from defensive duo Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz.
Goals from Milivojevic and Jordan Ayew cancelled the deficit for Palace, before VAR struck in the final minutes of the match to deny Arsenal all three points, with defender Calum Chambers controversially viewed to have fouled a Palace player in the box.
Whilst this late drama incensed many within the Emirates, it was the events surrounding the substitution of their skipper, Granit Xhaka, which have ultimately generated the most controversy from the Sunday afternoon thriller.
Xhaka, having only been appointed Arsenal captain in September after the departure of Laurent Koscielny to Bordeaux, was substituted off for the youngster Bukayo Saka in the 61st minute of play, with the score all square at 2-2. Having lost a 2-0 lead, the atmosphere within the Emirates was already toxic, yet turned to outright hostility when, upon his substitution, Xhaka walked back to the bench. Cue the boos, with the Arsenal faithful attempting to urge their captain off at a quicker pace. Xhaka, consistently labelled as hot-headed throughout his career, ignored this demand, cupped his hand to his ear, goaded the home fans with expletives, and stormed straight down the tunnel.
Outrage among Arsenal fans around the world was instantaneous, and time has done little to quell such anger with their skipper. Xhaka has remained quiet on the issue and reportedly refused any calls to publicly apologise despite his own manager Unai Emery attempting to make him do so, further aggravating the situation. Many believe this is the final straw for Xhaka’s career at Arsenal, with ex-England striker Alan Shearer claiming that he saw ‘no way back’ for the player.
Xhaka’s reaction, whilst disgraceful, can hardly be surprising given the abuse he faces from the Arsenal fans on a weekly basis. Ever since his signing for £30 million from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016, Xhaka has proven to be a divisive figure among Arsenal fans, with the player often personally being blamed for Arsenal’s misfortunes on the pitch. Many Arsenal fans attribute his presence with Arsenal’s failure to qualify for the Champions League since 2017 and have certainly made this known to the player through harassment on his and his wife’s social media platforms.
Abuse has at times got so bad, that both have had to disable their accounts on numerous occasions, with institutions such as Arsenal Fan TV stoking much of this hate.
Whilst it seems that there may be no way back for Arsenal’s captain, the end may soon be coming for manager Unai Emery, who has been blamed by many for this crisis and has achieved little in his time at the club. Emery’s original decision to allow the players to vote for their captain has been strongly criticized by Arsenal legends such as Martin Keown, who claimed that this had turned the situation into “a popularity contest” undermining the character of what it takes to be captain of the Arsenal Football Club. Given the player’s popularity among the dressing room, Unai Emery may now be fearing a full-on dressing room revolt if Xhaka is dealt with too harshly, complicated by Xhaka’s lack of remorse.
Keown is right to blame manager Unai Emery for this. Originally heralded as a modern tactical innovator and protagonist who could propel Arsenal back to the top of the premier league, Emery has been found to be contradictory, divisive and unconvincing. Whatever the outcome of Xhaka-gate, those in the upper echelons of the Arsenal hierarchy will surely be losing their patience with Emery.
Quietly, they will likely begin to assess their options given the Spaniard’s contract is up in the summer, with Jose Mourinho, a figure recently spotted in the director’s box at the Emirates, observing events with ever increasing interest.