Where to start? Grant Xhaka? Unai Emery? Martin Atkinson? VAR? Plenty to pick the bones out of on an eventful match on a weekend when Arsenal started in fifth place, and finished there too after taking a point from the home game against Palace. After last season’s corresponding fixture knocked a huge nail in the coffin of the club’s top four hopes, it almost has the feeling of this particular game being a landmark occasion in Arsenal’s season. Yesterday was just so wrong on so many levels, starting with the huge delays to get in which resulted in many missing Arsenal’s opening goal, and a fair number not even getting in in time to see the second.
Still, people will eventually learn that you cannot just turn up at the ground with fifteen minutes before kicked off and expect to see the start of the game, unless it’s a Europa League night. On the pitch, whether Arsenal will ever recapture the concept of defensive solidity as long as Emery remains in charge is another question entirely. Arsenal took the lead thanks to early goals from their two centre backs, Sokratis and David Luiz – both from Pepe corners. It should have provided the basis for a comfortable 90 minutes, but Arsenal were unable to control the game. Calum Chambers has tried manfully to cover at right-back, but yesterday reminded us that, against a pacey winger, he is sadly going to struggle in that position. So it proved as he conceded a penalty (albeit one given by VAR after referee Atkinson had booked Zaha for diving) and was caught upfield when Palace broke for their second half equalizer. Xhaka was covering and left to block the cross, which in the eyes of the fans present made him the most culpable player for the goal that followed.
Soon afterwards, Xhaka was substituted, as Emery changed the formation from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4. It was a substitution that on one level reminded me of the removal of Emmanuel Eboue, when, subbed in December 2008 after himself coming on as a sub due to a poor display in a below par Arsenal performance (albeit a 1-0 victory against Wigan), the crowd booed him off. That was a moment of sadness in response to the crowd vitriol and, with time acknowledging they were wrong, the Arsenal fans made good in time by converting Eboue into a cult hero, regardless of his qualities.
Yesterday though, was a bit different. Xhaka responded with antagonism. It was the wrong choice. First up, the head coach was making a tactical substitution. Xhaka might have provided an assist (his header fell to Sokratis) for the opening goal, but aside from that his contribution had been negligible, almost as if he was reluctant to make space to receive the ball. A crisis of confidence, maybe, and perhaps understandable given the reality that he is very much the bête noire of Emery’s side, his elevation to de facto club captain an unpopular decision with the supporters. There was some cheering when subbed in a previous home game against Villa. It’s difficult to dispute that very few fans feel he is worthy of a place in the first choice starting eleven, because he too often seems to symbolize the ponderous nature of the team, the lack of drive going forward, added to the fact he cannot make a decent tackle, which is a facet of his game that is badly exposed as a deep-lying midfielder.
So, in his shoes, the wise thing would have been to accept the decision that he was being replaced, run to the touchline, and allow his team to get on with winning the match. Instead, he seemed to have an issue with the decision, which was greeted with a cheer from the fans, and chose to make a point (rather like Mesut Ozil generally does) of dawdling off. The crowd started booing, Xhaka encouraged them to continue by raising his arms, apparently swore a couple of times, and then removed his shirt before walking down the tunnel rather than watch the remainder of the game from the bench. Fortunately he didn’t throw his Arsenal shirt to the floor, at least until he reached the privacy of the dressing room, but the enough damage had been done anyway. I’ve heard that coins were thrown at Xhaka’s car as he made his way out of the stadium after the game, which if true is just plain wrong. Whether or not you consider jeering one of your own players is justified, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, and that was unfortunate to learn about, and hopefully it isn’t true.
As for him remaining as club captain, assuming he did express profanities at the crowd, his position looks untenable. I’ve seen some express the opinion that Emery hung the player out to dry by making the change, but the manager needed to make a change, and from what followed, in terms of the impetus to Arsenal’s play, it was justified. Arsenal’s pressure led to a legitimate third goal and it is difficult to see, from the replays, how overturning Martin Atkinson’s decision can be justified. Atkinson himself should have at least made the final decision by looking at the footage himself. And for that matter, the fans in the stadium need to be shown the footage being analysed themselves on the screens in the stadium. Then we can see on what basis a decision is being made – and understand it. I have a feeling that if Atkinson had seen the footage himself, he would have allowed the goal. Given the enormity of the decision, he was wrong not to view it. For the record, the men making the decisions in Stockley Park, west London, were Paul Tierney, assisted by Dan Robathan. I think it’s safe to say their performance for yesterday’s game will be reviewed by their superiors. Did Martin Atkinson make a clear and obvious error? Answers on a postcard to PGMOL head and the man who played the key role in Manchester United’s 2003 Premier League title run-in, Mike Riley. Riley is under pressure from law makers IFAB to lower the bar for VAR intervention and instruct his officials to make more use of pitchside replays, as their guidelines dictate. Not certain I have seen that happen even once this season.
So Arsenal did enough to legitimately win a game they had conspired to draw, and the fans were happy… until this farce of a decision. Still, of course it shouldn’t have come to this. Two goals ahead at home, the team should be capable of managing a game, killing it where required to prevent the visitors building any momentum and picking them off as they need to take more risks. However, whether the reason is tactics, coaching or personnel, this isn’t happening. Hence the concession of another two goal lead, as we also saw recently against Watford.
It does not inspire confidence in Unai Emery, and one of the problems with the connection between the club and its supporters is that the head coach has failed to create a bond with the fans. One seemed to be developing as we were enjoying the 22 match unbeaten run at this time a year ago, even if those that watched the games realised the team were walking a thin line a little too often during that sequence. Sadly, though, the supporters cannot connect with Emery, and as much as anything its because they don’t really understand him on so many levels.
You can understand the logic of hiring him in May 2018, but deeper analysis of his record should have revealed that in one respect, he was a little too much like Arsene Wenger in his approach to the game, and that what the club actually required was greater solidity rather than worrying about a reputation as entertainers. Arsenal still entertain the neutrals, no doubt about that – because there is invariably drama. But that doesn’t equate with entertaining football, or indeed winning football. In a sense Xhaka symbolises both the so-so nature of Emery’s football, and the disconnect with the fanbase.
The fear is that the atmosphere is turning toxic. As Arsenal were trying to win the game yesterday, the Mesut Ozil chant rose and was sung loudly. It felt more anti-Emery than pro-Ozil, although the latter’s reputation is growing with every non-appearance as the team falters. I’ve heard from people with connections to the club hierarchy that they are not going to replace Emery mid-season, although truth to tell their hand may be forced if the stadium turns. The head coach at least did the right thing after the game by stating his captain was wrong in his actions and that the matter would be addressed by himself in combination with the club hierarchy.
It is simply impossible to envisage Xhaka will ever wear the armband again, and you cannot envisage his next first team start being at the Emirates. I certainly can’t see him being salvaged in the hearts of supporters the way that Eboue was, and perhaps the best solution for everyone would be for him to move on in January. Bought in 2016 for a substantial amount, he does have his supporters, people that see things the ordinary fan doesn’t notice, but for me he’s not the standard required. Since his joining the club, they have not once qualified for the Champions League. To think, we used to moan about the limitations of Mikel Arteta.
As for Arsenal, let’s look ahead. Liverpool away in the Carabao Cup, a home game against Wolves next weekend (interesting to see who writes the ‘View from the Dressing Room’ in the club programme for that one), trips to Portugal and then Leicester before the next international break. My money is on Xhaka returning to the team in Portugal, and then coming on from the bench at Leicester, simply to test the water. If he plays against Wolves next weekend, there is a danger he will be booed by his own fans whenever he touches the ball. Of course, fans should never boo their own players, and they shouldn’t really cheer their removal. But enough do, and this is the world we live in now. What players need to do is think more of the team than their ego in their reactions when their coach makes a decision. Accept it, troop off slowly by all means if the team are winning, but move your arse if they need a goal – the change is being made to effect that.
Xhaka’s stupidity yesterday made an unhealthy relationship totally poisonous. With him out of the team for the short term, the focus will turn on Emery. And ultimately, the failure to deliver consistent winning football lies with him. Arsenal are too conservative to bite the bullet, refusing to accept Emery cannot get the club out of a malaise that seems to have been going on since December last year, with sporadic good performances peppered all too frequently by defensive horrorshows. There is no consistency, no confidence, no foundation. This isn’t the early days of a George Graham or an Arsene Wenger where progress is obvious. This is a version of purgatory. We can’t know how long it will last, but I predict it will be a while yet, albeit under a new first team captain.
As for Xhaka, I’d suggest his best bet would be to swallow a large dose of humility, go public – on video ideally – and admit he acted wrongly, regardless of provocation and accept his inevitable demotion from the captaincy – maybe even resign it before it is removed. The club may even try to engineer this anyway, but Xhaka needs to work on rebuilding some kind of a relationship with his fans if he is to remain at the club. The thing is, I doubt his pride will allow him to do what’s needed.
It’s a sad state of affairs at the club right now, in the summer, Josh Kroenke addressed the disconnect between the supporters and his father, with some transfer activity quelling the feeling of discontent. Now that has shifted to the team and the manager, so expect some kind of a response, but actions will speak much louder than words. The fear is that yesterday could be the catalyst to a dog of a season, even if currently, Arsenal are still very much in contention to achieve their aims. They have lost twice in 14 matches in all competitions. And yet it just has the feeling of going nowhere fast.
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