Why cap­tain Xhaka is Arse­nal’s scape­goat

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Jamie Car­ragher col­umn

If there is one les­son from the Granit Xhaka furore at Arse­nal, it is this: If the fans love you, you can pretty much get away with any­thing as a player and manager. If they do not, and you make a mis­take, you are screwed.

Foot­ball is a global pop­u­lar­ity con­test. Those who win hearts and minds of spec­ta­tors, whether it is through their tal­ent, ap­pli­ca­tion or per­son­al­ity, will com­mand loy­alty and re­spect even if they make the worst in­dis­cre­tions.

Players who have never de­liv­ered or built a rap­port with those same sup­port­ers will al­ways find it tougher if they step out of line. They are con­ve­nient tar­gets. It means when they make a gen­uine mis­take – as Xhaka did last week­end – the re­ac­tion is some­times more fe­ro­cious than is fair or rea­son­able.

Ev­ery club have their share of he­roes and scape­goats, and it is not only the crowd who are guilty of favouritis­m. Own­ers and board mem­bers are equally guilty of de­ter­min­ing a pun­ish­ment based on the value of their as­sets. It is eas­ier to make an ex­am­ple of an un­der­per­form­ing foot­baller whose salary has be­come a drain on re­sources than the tal­is­man who is fun­da­men­tal to suc­cess. Dou­ble stan­dards are rife and clubs are op­por­tunis­tic.

In try­ing to re­pair the bro­ken re­la­tion­ship with Arse­nal fans, it would be naive to sug­gest Xhaka’s prob­lem is solely his re­ac­tion to be­ing sub­sti­tuted against Crys­tal Palace last week­end. That in­ci­dent oc­curred be­cause, as the cap­tain, he has been branded a sym­bol of an un­der­per­form­ing team.

Arse­nal fans did not want him as cap­tain, and they do not agree with the man­ner in which he was given the role, Unai Emery al­low­ing his players to make their own choice.

It means in the emo­tion of the mo­ment, the frus­tra­tion build­ing after an­other poor home dis­play, sup­port­ers had the chance to re­lease their anger and di­rect it at one player.

Xhaka was wrong in re­act­ing to the cheers when he was subbed.

Although he is­sued a state­ment on Thurs­day, it was also a mis­take not to is­sue an im­me­di­ate apol­ogy to try to defuse the ten­sion. But on the list of mis­de­meanours of re­cent Arse­nal cap­tains, I would sug­gest it is a rel­a­tively tame of­fence.

The sub­se­quent crit­i­cism – with many claim­ing he should be stripped of the arm­band and never play for the club again – went too far.

Was Xhaka’s be­hav­iour com­pa­ra­ble to that of pre­de­ces­sor Laurent Ko­scielny, and his re­fusal to join a pre-sea­son tour so he could force a move to Bordeaux?

Was it as dis­rep­utable as Wil­liam Gal­las’s one-man protest after Arse­nal con­ceded a late equaliser to Birm­ing­ham in 2008?

If Xhaka was as good for Arse­nal as Cesc Fabre­gas or Robin van Per­sie, would those want­ing him to be stripped of the cap­taincy feel the same way?

There was a time, when he was Arse­nal cap­tain, that Fabre­gas ap­peared to be en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery Barcelona player to de­mand Arsene Wenger sell him.

Van Per­sie, mean­while, spent his last sea­son at the Emi­rates pri­vately con­sid­er­ing the chance to move to Manch­ester United.

Sup­port­ers chose not to believe their he­roes were dis­re­spect­ing them in such a way. Only when those trans­fers ma­te­ri­alised did they get an­gry. Un­til then, the players were sup­ported be­cause of their abil­i­ties.

This is not just an Arse­nal is­sue. Last sea­son, it seemed as if Chelsea’s Jorginho rep­re­sented all that was wrong with the reign of Mau­r­izio Sarri. Fast for­ward a year, and with a pop­u­lar new manager back­ing him, Jorginho’s rep­u­ta­tion has been trans­formed. He is the same player. It is the world around him that has changed.

Liver­pool sup­port­ers had a sim­i­lar at­ti­tude when I was a player, choos­ing the favourites who could do no wrong while an­other group of players were held accountabl­e for poor per­for­mances.

There was a game against Southamp­ton in

Jan­uary 2002 when Danny Mur­phy was given iden­ti­cal treat­ment by the

Kop as Xhaka last week – an ironic cheer when subbed. The dif­fer­ence then was that he re­sponded by scor­ing the win­ning goal at Manch­ester United three days later.

I was of­ten crit­i­cised early in my ca­reer when I played full-back, Liver­pool fans want­ing a ver­sion of Ashley Cole rather than my­self.

Ger­ard Houl­lier would rally around us, in­sist­ing he be­lieved in us. For the players, the only way to change the sit­u­a­tion is on the pitch. The bet­ter you play, the more slack you are cut.

There is a gen­eral re­fusal by fans to think ill of the best players when they mess up, are in­volved in con­tract wran­gles with their agents push­ing for trans­fers, or fail to ap­ply them­selves on and off the pitch. Even if there is a fall­out, for­give­ness is swift. You only have to re­view Luis Suarez’s Liver­pool ca­reer to see that – from un­qual­i­fied, mis­guided sup­port in the Pa­trice Evra case through to the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion after he pub­licly re­quested to join Arse­nal.

Would there have been the same tol­er­ance for a fringe player as a £75 mil­lion as­set who could win Liver­pool the ti­tle? No chance.

There are also ex­am­ples of players who have re­fused to play for their clubs so they can force a move, yet it was the manager who took all the crit­i­cism.

Roy Hodg­son re­called last week how Javier Mascher­ano went on strike and re­fused to play against Manch­ester City be­fore be­ing sold to Barcelona.

Liver­pool fans still fondly speak of Mascher­ano. Why? Be­cause it was Hodg­son they never liked.

I played along­side Wayne Rooney at the 2010 World Cup when he mocked boo­ing Eng­land sup­port­ers to a TV cam­era after a 0-0 draw with Al­ge­ria. He was such an im­por­tant player for his coun­try, it was soon for­got­ten.

Those who say there can be no way back for Xhaka are not ra­tio­nally as­sess­ing events. They are coloured by their prej­u­dices against Xhaka the player, not the 27-year-old pro­fes­sional who in sport­ing terms is ex­pe­ri­enced, but is still a rel­a­tively young man mak­ing his way through a high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tion.

What­ever your thoughts on his abil­i­ties, no one has played more games for Arse­nal than Xhaka over the past few years. Man­agers want players they can trust, who will al­ways make them­selves avail­able and never hide from their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Such char­ac­ters are prefer­able to those mav­er­icks who turn it on oc­ca­sion­ally but shirk the tough­est chal­lenges.

There is a rea­son Xhaka is more pop­u­lar with his team-mates and manager than the Arse­nal sup­port­ers. He is not the first and will not be the last to re­alise that some­times a ca­reer feels much eas­ier when it is the other way around.

Bad blood: Granit Xhaka cups his ear to Arse­nal fans boo­ing his exit

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