Why captain Xhaka is Arsenal’s scapegoat
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