Sunday felt like a watershed moment for both Arsenal fans and their captain, Granit Xhaka. The doubts, the criticism, the anger and, in some circles, the abuse all came to a head. Another frustrating team performance and result have been rendered secondary to the issues laid bare between the Swiss midfielder and the supporters packed into the Emirates. Unai Emery’s decision to hand him the armband in the first place, and the manner in which he made it, left a lot to be desired; now it seems inevitable that Xhaka will never lead Arsenal out again.
Having surrendered a two-goal lead in a game shrouded in VAR controversy by the end, Arsenal were chasing a winner. Xhaka, clearly lacking confidence at the very least, was hooked off by Emery on the hour, with 18-year-old Bukayo Saka his replacement. Cheers greeted the switch, and Xhaka responded by sauntering off the pitch, which angered those in the stands. What followed was unacceptable, certainly from a captain. He doubled down by goading and swearing at the supporters before ripping his armband and shirt off and storming down the tunnel.
There is clearly some mitigation for Xhaka’s actions. He is struggling at the moment, and having your own supporters jeer you must be tough to take. There had been reports of his partner being harassed on social media as the reaction to his captaincy turned sour, and supporters cannot possibly make things personal without expecting some sort of response. Xhaka didn’t hurt anyone personally, either, physically or otherwise. But selecting him as skipper certainly felt like an odd choice on Emery’s part, and this proved why. A captain has to be calm, calculated and disciplined, three traits Xhaka struggles to demonstrate consistently.
It was the real prime candidate who stood up straight after the incident. Hector Bellerin, an unused substitute and the youngest of five players Emery selected as part a ‘leadership committee’, took to Twitter to call for unity. The 24-year-old, alongside Xhaka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and, bizarrely, Mesut Özil, who has since been completely ostracised by Emery, were all contenders before Xhaka was eventually chosen. Nothing about the situation made sense, and it has blown up in the manager’s face just as pressure was growing and the tide was beginning to turn with supporters.
There is a difference between a leader and a captain. Aubameyang and Lacazette, as well as an in-form Özil, can be the former because they are able to create or score goals to win matches, and more often than not have a big-game mentality. In such cases, receiving the armband forces them to sink or swim, depending on the individual.
Xhaka has the qualities to fit into that category – he has shown he can be an influential midfielder at times – but he hasn’t done it enough. Bellerin may be the least experienced of the quintet, but he has been at the club the longest and is never afraid to speak his mind and impose his personality on the team, without ever being confrontational in a negative sense. He has had his issues with supporters, but by and large seems popular, and felt like the most obvious candidate.
Whether Xhaka is stripped of the duty remains to be seen. Emery has so far remained tight-lipped on that. But in a team that lacks genuine leaders, as it did for much of Arsene Wenger’s last decade at the club, there isn’t a great deal that can be done other than shifting the responsibility to Bellerin. He may not be a Patrick Vieira or a Tony Adams, but Arsenal haven’t seen that sort of authority ever since they departed. Few teams have. Like everything in football, the role of the captain has evolved. Every player must stand up and be counted, and it is less about one man taking on the duty. But it is much better suited to somebody like Bellerin, who understands the club and says the right thing at the right time; a proper role model.
Many people have lost respect for Xhaka after his actions over the weekend, and given there was already a backlash once he was made captain, his position is now untenable in that regard. There thankfully haven’t been too many calls for the end to his Arsenal career overall. Perhaps a few games out of the firing line will be beneficial. He can still play a role for the club going forward.
It has been forgotten slightly, but failing to beat Crystal Palace, having been 2-0 up at home, is yet more evidence of far deeper problems after recent results. Issues left by Wenger haven’t been dealt with, and Emery must be scrutinised for that.
Sympathy for Xhaka is one thing, but suggesting he should continue as captain is another. Some Arsenal supporters have been patient with him, while many others have failed to support him at times and a minority have got unnecessarily personal. Yet he was never the right man for the job, and if he didn’t realise that before, Emery must do so now.
Leadership has been sparse at the club for a long time and that still needs looking at, but there is one very good option that must now be turned to in Bellerin.
Harry De Cosemo is on Twitter