Granit Xhaka and the eternal Arsenal melodrama
If it looks like a watershed moment, sounds like a watershed moment and feels like a watershed moment then... well. It usually is one
All three boxes were ticked as Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka was substituted in the 60th minute during the Gunners’ 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace. The decision to replace the Swiss midfielder with Bukayo Saka was applauded by Arsenal supporters, who then took the opportunity to segue into some prolonged jeering as Xhaka trudged - top lip beginning to curl upwards like a child about to cry, or a man about to spit at you - towards the touchline. He tossed the captain's armband to the floor like a jilted lover with an 'I'm leaving you' note, scrunched and torn, before imploring the crowd to increase their volume.
It was like something out of a pantomime or Monday Night Raw in the days when WWE was WWF. He cupped his ear. He nodded his head along to the orchestra of boos. He mouthed 'fuck off' a couple of times. He freed himself of the Arsenal shirt previously suctioned to him like a wet, hungry octopus, and then he walked straight down the tunnel, not once looking back, a tragic hero in a compression layer never to be seen again.
This was the 143rd night of the mini-opera Granit Xhaka at the Arsenal and could well be one of the last in the box office run, a tale of one of the best young midfielders in Germany (no, really) being picked up for the not-insubstantial fee of £30 million and taken away to a foreign land, where he was slowly brutalised, broken and mashed into shapelessness by an at times toxic fanbase and a football club which has turned a lack of direction and boardroom-level incompetence into its only direction, its only defining characteristic.
Unlike the 142 previous instalments, all captivating in their own right if a little repetitive, this felt significant. Things can't go on like this. The self-perpetuating hatefulness (some or most, but not all) Arsenal fans feel for their team, for themselves, has reached the point of no return. Perhaps we are already a couple of yards past it, the burning, wooden-plank bridge hanging down in the valley behind us. Xhaka was appointed Arsenal captain one month ago. In other words: it has taken exactly one month to go from "Look at me, I am the captain now" to onfield spontaneous human combustion.
The odd thing about all this is that Granit Xhaka is arguably the ideal captain for Arsenal. He is, by this point, an agonisingly real embodiment of the club's current fugue state. After three and a bit seasons of common haplessness and very occasional semi-brilliance, the frequent criticism from fans and pundits alike has weathered him. It has made a mockery of his first name and left us with the most Arsenal of Arsenal captains. Hot-headed. Mentally frail. A woeful decision-maker. At any given moment too aloof, or too dejected. All the worst tropes of his football club manifested now in one-half of Unai Emery's always-terrible double pivots. (Play Torreira and Guendouzi together just once, you dick). They are, unfortunately, a perfect match, two entities that were always destined to be together, to argue at every dinner party and endure silent taxi rides home and glare at each other in the dark, side-by-side, promising themselves that this will be the last time even though they know it won't.
Xhaka was all those things in the Bundesliga, of course, but never quite as often, or as outlandishly so. The environment was more stable, the spotlight less bright and the things that he does do well (tidy recycling of possession, scything long-range passing and the occasional sledgehammer drive from outside the box) he did very well. This overshadowed the things he doesn't do particularly well. Which is almost everything else. The case has been the opposite at Arsenal. He played every game for Gladbach as they finished third in the 14/15 season and was appointed captain for the following campaign - the youngest in the league. There's even an ill-advised 'Midfield General' video comparing him to Xabi Alonso on the Bundesliga's YouTube channel. The less said about that the better.
The problem, and this is in no small part down to the vehemence of the worst factions of Arsenal supporters, the kind that abuse their players through avalanches of Instagram comments, the kind that boo their captain as he leaves the field in a tactical substitution as their team pushes for a winner, is that he is now duct-taped to the lightning rod that is Arsenal.
Before him it was Shkrodan Mustafi, who has mercifully been relieved of first-team duties that seem to actually matter. I.e. everything but the Europa League. Before him it was Mesut Özil, that waifish tormentor-in-chief who began to draw ire with every drooping of the shoulders and lowering of the chin, no matter how slight. Funnily enough, Özil has become something of a martyr now that the fans are beginning to lose all patience with Unai Emery, the man who ostracised him from the squad and - let us not forget - the one who decided to give Granit Xhaka the armband despite nobody in the world, not even Granit Xhaka himself, thinking that was a good idea. He hasn't eased things for a player that was already under immense pressure by giving him the captaincy permanently, nor has he through doggedly including him in the starting XI. The fact he has done both is damning indictment of his ability to manage this particularly troublesome squad appropriately.
But Emery doesn't have long, that much is clear. Whether he goes now or in the summer should really only depend on whether Max Allegri fancies cutting his extended holiday short. Whatever he does now, which is either to replace Xhaka as captain in response to widespread fan and pundit outrage (are you sensing a theme?) or to unquietly relegate him to the subs’ bench for a few weeks, he will look like a dead man walking. The first option will only demonstrate a poor judge of character and illogical decision-making. The latter will prove him to be the fool the fans already think he is. It's hard to tell which is worse.
For Xhaka, it's difficult to see a way back into the affections of Arsenal supporters. That's a good thing. Arsenal, seemingly more than any other club, exist in a quasi-perpetual state of melodrama. They cannot function without it. This is why, at all instances, they strive to create it themselves from top to bottom. The board will sign a player like David Luiz, essentially the footballing equivalent of the mops from Fantasia. A bit of chaos, a bit of magic but mostly just a cartoon gone a bit rogue that frightens the small children watching it. The manager will outright refuse to play his best players, all together, at once. The players will choose to capitulate at every available opportunity, to a man Poundland umbrellas in gale winds. The fans will start Arsenal Fan TV. And go on Arsenal Fan TV. And express opinions so baffling in their deep-rooted fatalism that it really does make you wonder whether it is the enjoyment of football that is the point at all, or a self-inflicted brain haemorrhage.
Xhaka would do well to leave it all behind and get back to the relative tranquillity of pinging footballs about somewhere in mainland Europe, where the expectation isn't so insistent on a certain invincible kind of greatness. He won't be the first nor the last player to leave N5 significantly worse for the experience. It seems that ever since the beginning of Arsene Wenger's gradual decline, most do. That's just how it goes now: first you get the jester hat, then the rotten tomatoes, then the door. And an entire fanbase, in unison, repeating "I don't recall saying good luck".
But then again, there was definitely something in the way he greeted the ridicule. There was something in the way in which he taunted the crowd and barely acknowledged his manager. Most deemed it disrespectful, I'm tempted to think about thinking about maybe expressing deep admiration for it. After all, what can you do but your best in difficult circumstances and, if people don't think that's good enough, tell them all to fuck off before fucking off yourself? Is there not something to be said for that - a mild cross-department office conflict but played out live in front of 60,000 people and then the entirety of the internet? It's beautiful, in a uniquely Arsenal kind of way.
They have always wanted the cojones, steel and tenacity missing from their midfield since the heady days of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. How fitting it is that Xhaka has managed to channel exactly that right as he smashes the outline of his own lumbering silhouette into the fire exit. How fitting it is that the extended wrath of the supporters was all it took.
There are no normal days here, tune in to find out what happens next week.