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Xhaka can’t: Appointing a captain who lacks leadership skills was always doomed to failure

October 28, 2019

I don’t miss many home games, to say the least. But I wasn’t at the Crystal Palace match at the Emirates on Sunday. I was commuting through London during the second half and listening to the commentary on Ex-Gunners forward Jeremie Aliadiere was on co-commentary.

As soon as the incident between Granit Xhaka and the Arsenal supporters unfolded as the Swiss was substituted, Aliadiere produced an unvarnished reaction. “Oh no, don’t do that. You can’t do that.” He knew straight away, as Unai Emery did, that taking on the supporters in this manner is unprofessional, not least for a captain.

It must be hard to hear your name sarcastically cheered when you are substituted. It’s not a pleasant thing to experience. It’s also probably not really fair. Though it is clear that Granit should not be the figurehead that Emery has made him, he doesn’t pick himself and he doesn’t want for effort.

The player has become a lightning rod and the coach has exacerbated the situation by making him captain and then substituting him during two poor results. Xhaka probably didn’t deserve the reaction he got from the Emirates faithful, who, to my mind are using the player as a punch bag for their dissatisfaction with the manager.

However, we shouldn’t lose perspective on the reaction. It’s a bit of sarcastic applause initially. It’s not nice and it’s intended as a passive aggressive, fairly British way of expressing dissatisfaction. The player pours fuel on a pretty tame fire by trudging off the pitch petulantly and slowly at a time when the team he is captaining has little time to lose. Only then does it escalate into booing.

As escalations go, booing is still not nice, but it also does not constitute ‘abuse.’ Xhaka has made a habit of entirely losing his discipline in pressure situations, which always made me question the contention that he was any kind of a leader. Leaders show grace under fire and I can’t recall many players I have seen in my 30 years of watching Arsenal more ill-fitting of that description.

Xhaka lost his temper at a clutch moment and has set fire to his already complicated relationship with the supporters. The Swiss has previously enjoyed quite a comfortable life at Arsenal, he is picked consistently, he has been awarded a new contract and made club captain and it is debatable whether he has really deserved any of those things.

I think we can all relate to the human side of reacting to, shall we say, ‘uppity customers’. We all have to deal with it at some point in our professional lives. As much as one would often like to tell these individuals where to stick it, even if the individual in question sometimes deserves it, we don’t. Because that’s unprofessional. It’s true that players are humans, but they are professionals too.

That is what this amounts to, telling your customers to %$*! off. It’s never a good look and absolutely not the behaviour of a leader. Unai Emery is not a gifted communicator, but his comments in response were measured and well thought out, “We are here because we have supporters. We are the workers inside, but we play for them.”

Booing and sarcastic jeering are not to my tastes, personally. Leaving aside how self-defeating they can be when expressed against members of your own team, ultimately they are expressions of negative emotion and nobody ever feels better for expressing negativity. It just creates more negativity. However, it is part of the theatre of live sport and always has been.

The sport absolutely and totally exists at the fans’ behest. No fans, no sport, it’s that simple. That’s why the principle of taking on the supporters in this way is analogous to exploding at your customers anywhere else in the service industry. Nobody has to tolerate abuse or threats and nobody- paying customer or otherwise, has the right to express themselves in that manner.

Booing and sarcastic applause should not be conflated with that behaviour, however. That’s why Xhaka doesn’t have the club’s backing with his reaction and nor should he expect it. Granit is clearly quite sensitive to criticism, which is totally fine. He described criticism of the team’s mentality as “bullsh*t” earlier this week.

After his first goal for Arsenal at Hull City in 2016, he celebrated by putting his finger to his lips and making a “talking” motion with his hands- a response to criticism he had endured in the Swiss press. These aren’t huge issues, but his reaction to pressure has often seen him lose control of his actions. On this occasion, he and the club will know he’s crossed a line and he will likely pay for it with the captaincy and, eventually, his Arsenal career.