It would have been perfect theater if — after cupping his ears to booing Arsenal fans, telling them to fuck off, taking his shirt off in anger and walking down the tunnel after being substituted against Crystal Palace — Granit Xhaka gave a press conference repeating the lines from Hélène Cixous’s “The Perjured City”.
“People do not see you,/They invent and accuse you.”
Xhaka has his clear strengths (ball progression, especially) and weaknesses (turnovers, lack of physicality, inability to defend, penchant for bad fouls) as a player, and has often come under fire during his Arsenal tenure when the consequences of those weaknesses outweigh the benefits of his strengths. Yet, nothing made him an enemy of the people more than Arsenal manager Unai Emery making him team captain a month ago.
Arsenal, like many teams, has several leaders, and leaders usually don’t need the armband to legitimize their positions; they only need the respect and trust of their teammates. The armband can often be ceremonial, but it is also a way for the manager to pick the player who acts as his proxy on the field and to the world. Someone who represents that era of the team and speaks on behalf of the manager.
By making Xhaka the captain, Emery made the oft-maligned player, with all of his faults and excessive pride, the symbol of this current Arsenal team. He became a target, more than he already was. And the anger against him grew more vicious the worse the team did, and the worse Xhaka played while still maintaining his place in the starting lineup. He couldn’t be dropped, and he wasn’t going to improve, and the team kept being overrun and dominated by smaller sides while having no real identity.
Xhaka’s reaction to the fans wasn’t about a singular incident, but the consequence of weeks of criticism and abuse. He just had enough. After the game, Emery said Xhaka’s reaction was wrong:
”He was wrong, he was wrong. But I think now [we] stay calm and also speak with him, speak inside around that. His reaction was wrong. We are here because we have supporters. In football we are the workers inside [the pitch] but we play for them. We need to have respect for them when they are applauding us and also when they are criticising us.”
It’s perfectly fair to say players are beholden to fans and should have respect for their audience, but it’s not hard to understand why someone like Xhaka, who hasn’t done anything to offend fans beyond not playing as they would like, would react negatively to being booed by people who root for the team he plays for. Respect has to be a two-way street, and it’s a lonely feeling for a player to go out on the field and try to do well for the team only to be derided. Xhaka might not be right in his reaction, but his fault is in being human.
Emery’s disavowal placed himself outside of the causes of the incident, as if he didn’t play a part in the tension that built up to the explosive event. People love scapegoats and he gave them one. It’s much easier to be angry with a player who represents everything wrong with the team than to be angry at the totality of a situation. In totality, the player is a small, and perhaps inconsequential part.
That Xhaka has become Arsenal’s scapegoat is clear by the elevation of Mesut Ozil, whose name was sung by fans near the end of the game.
It’s odd to see Ozil being venerated, considering that for so long he was the representation of everything wrong with the team. Regardless of what he actually did on the field, fans and media piled on him. If Arsenal lost and there was a clip of him being frustrated at a pass, it was taken as evidence that he lacked passion and aggression.
Arsene Wenger made a point to ask fans not to make Ozil a scapegoat for his team’s failings when he was still manager. And this season, even without being on the field, Ozil was still being attacked as a problem.
Like Xhaka, Ozil is also a player of limited quality whose strengths are sometimes made small by his weaknesses. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is Emery’s refusal to even put Ozil on the bench, let alone play him while the team is lacking in creativity, has made Ozil a martyr. Where, to fans, Xhaka represents Emery’s Arsenal, Ozil has become a symbol of resistance.
For both players, the public anger and praise directed at them have little to do with the players themselves, but the manager who has decided which one to favor. Dropping Xhaka and stripping him of the captaincy will soothe fans, but only for a moment, just as restoring Ozil to the team would. But neither move will address the deeper frustration.
The frustration is that Emery has not created a worthwhile team. His Arsenal are not only bad offensively, but also defensively. They have no identity, and the team is often only bailed out by the individual brilliance of the forwards. The anger wouldn’t be as vicious if Arsenal had a clear path forward, if anyone could see what the team is supposed to become. Within that context of failure, Xhaka is hardly a devil, and Ozil will not be a savior.
In Emery’s first year, he was given more space to fail because he needed the time to build a team to his philosophies. In his second year, the team hasn’t improved and the fans no longer have compassion for him. Public disdain for the manager is so high that okayers are being judged by how close they are to him.
For now, Xhaka is demonized while Ozil’s name is sung. Neither player is any different from what they were before. And because the anger from fans won’t be soothed until the team’s identity and form changes, the positions those two hold are temporary. Just as quick as Ozil became a scapegoat, then a martyr, he can go back to being a scapegoat again. When Xhaka is taken out of the spotlight, someone else will have to deal with the jeers.
Maybe that individual will deal with the booing better than Xhaka did, but it will take that player understanding what Xhaka probably couldn’t in the moment: It’s not about him. He is just a representation of the bigger problem, and an easier target.