Not for the first time, it was Héctor Bellerín who spoke the most sense. Sixteen hours had passed sinceGranit Xhaka’s thunderous departurefrom the Emirates Stadium pitch and, through the pregnant calm of the post-matchomertà, the Arsenal right-back decided to tweet his piece. “We are all humans, we all have emotions, and sometimes it’s not easy dealing with them,”Bellerín wrote. “It’s time to lift each other up, not to push each other away. We only win when we are together. ”
Arsenalhave ground out several victories despite the cracks that, on Sunday, became canyons but it is hard to see where anyone goes from here now the atmosphere between Xhaka and his home crowd has turned so poisonous. It is equally difficult to work out exactly why things came to this.
Unai Emeryand Arsenal made a big, protracted deal of this season’s captaincy selection, stringing it out through an awkward start to the season in which warnings blared when Xhaka was jeered off against Aston Villa. The manager barrelled on regardless and the consequence, whoever you choose to hold at fault, is a mess that will not be resolved overnight.
This is not a straightforward case of player v fans, a contest that rarely ends well for the individual. The photographs ofa distraught Lucas Torreira, circulated online by one of the club’s photographers after the game, looking close to tears spoke vividly of the esteem Xhaka is held by his peers. So did the fact a group of them visited him at home within hours of the flashpoint against Crystal Palace.
Emery’s selection process for the captaincy, when it finally took place, involved a vote among the squad. They decided, consciously or not, that Xhaka’s strengths overrode any extraneous factors and there is more than a little validity in the idea that the wisdom of football crowds is not infallible: much of the time, those who know really do know.
It means Emery will have had to tread carefully when, on Monday, he met Xhaka after deliberating with the club’s hierarchy. He was unequivocal in saying the player had erred in removing his shirt, cupping his ears and swearing at the supporters. That alone sets out conditions that Xhaka will not get off scot-free; one wonders whether Arsène Wenger, empathetic to a fault, would have set things down in quite such stark terms. But moving the armband on, ideally to Bellerín but more likely to the second choice, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, would risk being viewed within the dressing room as a capitulation and a demoralizing blow to the Swiss midfielder.
There will certainly be eyebrows raised elsewhere if Xhaka features against Wolves on Saturday. He and Emery may be able to draw on the fans’ volte-face in December 2008 when Emmanuel Eboué , booed off near the end of a match against Wigan, was given an ovation at Arsenal’s next home outing against Portsmouth, albeit with a handy three weeks of cooling off between the two. There was a realization then that the supporters had gone too far: Eboué, a likeable character but a limited player at the top level, did not deserve anything remotely like that. But his reaction was one of utter dejection, rather than foul-mouthed rage; everybody reacts to intense stress differently but the optics are less favorable to Xhaka, even if the situation’s roots are similar.
But those roots need examining. On one level Xhaka might be this week’s problem but why, even if the events occurred a decade apart, have Arsenal found themselves here again? Eboué was a lightning rod for the drift that set in during the autumn of Wenger’s tenure and Xhaka is essentially the same for this indeterminate season of Emery’s time in charge.
Arsenal have broadly lacked accountability and leadership, on and off the pitch, since moving to the Emirates in 2006 and pronouncedly so sinceStan Kroenkefirst became involved with the club two years later. The frustrations have built up, the excuses many and the figureheads far from convincing; Xhaka was touted when Wenger signed him in 2016 as the dominant midfielder Arsenal had missed since Patrick Vieira, and that he is nothing like that player – for all his appreciable qualities – makes him just one more visible symptom of slow decline in many eyes.
That is not to remotely excuse the level of vitriol to which he was subjected. Nor is it to let Emery off the hook given that, in Xhaka and Mesut Özil, he now has two leading players in chaotic situations that appear to have been mismanaged across the board. Emery inherited both issues, to some extent, but this week will have to own at least one of them if Arsenal are to begin salving the wounds.
“We need to be clever in our minds and create habits under pressure for our minds to be clearer,” Emery said of his players on Sunday when asked about Xhaka’s reaction but they are far from the only ones whose fuzzy thinking has brought Arsenal here.