The Arsenal captaincy: what went wrong?
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang & Granit Xhaka. Pic: Getty Images.

When the next generation of Arsenal fans look through the history books, there may not be too much that jumps out at them during the Emirates era. 

Three FA Cups in four years will certainly be one of the highlights, as will the beauty of what Santi Cazorla brought to the pitch but Switzerland international Granit Xhaka has ensured his name will be spoken about long after he hangs up his boots. 

After he was officially announced as Arsenal captain on September 27, it took just 39 days for him to lose the armband in what will surely go down as one of the shortest reigns as skipper.

This is not without merit. What Xhaka did following his substitution against Crystal Palace was not the act of a player who is supposed to be the leader of the players and the face of the club.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

To throw the armband to the ground, to put your hands up and antagonise the crowd, to trudge off the pitch slowly, to cup your ear to the already frustrated fans, to tell the crowd to ‘f**k off”, to ignore the manager’s handshake, to storm off down the tunnel. That is not what a captain does. 

The fans played their part too, that is much is undeniable, and on a human level Xhaka’s reaction to the chorus of boos and jeers was justifiable. This was not just a reaction to the crowd though, this was a person reaching ‘boiling point’ following the abuse he has suffered on social media, having to deal with some absolutely abhorrent messages. However, professionally it is at odds with how a player should act, particularly a captain. 

The same could be said for the fans. Xhaka is not the sole problem for Arsenal and simply taking him off was not going to win the game. The Swiss has been a divisive figure with frequent errors and unnecessary fouls coinciding with breath-taking passing and ferocious long-range strikes. 

However, perhaps Xhaka’s worse trait is that he has become an embodiment of the head coach on the pitch. The football has been awful, the defending has been atrocious, there has been no creativity and midfield has been a huge problem and Xhaka has become the scapegoat for that.

That isn’t entirely down to Xhaka and reflects just as badly on Unai Emery. The 27-year-old is probably following Emery’s orders well but things are not clicking on the pitch so when his number went up, fans took out their frustration on the teacher’s pet. 

Had he just jogged off the pitch, complained to the rest of the players, the coaches and people behind-the-scenes about the issues he has been facing and tried to prove everyone wrong on the pitch then he would likely still be captain and the club wouldn’t be looking so weak. This whole saga has not left anyone sittiing in a positive light, least of all Emery, who is already under intense pressure.

A HESISTANT APPOINTMENT

After Laurent Koscielny’s controversial exit in the summer it seemed difficult to see how a captain could leave the club under a bigger cloud but Xhaka may just have managed it with The Sun, Yahoo! Sports, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and Goal all reporting that a January departure is likely. 

Koscielny, Xhaka’s predecessor, left the club on August 6, after refusing to go on the pre-season tour of the US. This meant his position as a player at the club was untenable and was subsequently sold to Bordeaux

With the captaincy up for grabs, everyone was waiting for Xhaka to be awarded the privilege. Afterall he was part of Emery’s leadership group last season and with Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech already out of the door it was left between out-of-favour Mesut Özil, Spaniard Nacho Monreal and Xhaka.

However, Emery delayed naming his new captain. Arsenal began the campaign with Xhaka leading the team out but without official word from the club. Monreal departed for Real Sociedad, Özil was frozen out and still Emery remained quiet.

He teased an announcement before the Carabao Cup clash with Nottingham Forest but again postponed his decision. Rob Holding then revealed the head coach had asked all the players to vote for their choice of captain, which was met with mixed views from the fans with many believing it showed a lack of authority and decisiveness. Others believed he had not been keen on Xhaka as permanent captain and was weighing up his options.

Eventually, on September 27, Xhaka was officially named the new Arsenal captain with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Héctor Bellerín, Alexandre Lacazette and Özil making up the rest of the captaincy group. This came as no surprise but the reaction was still full of outrage with fans not believing Xhaka had the skills needed to be captain. An ability to implode at any time is not something a typical captain has as one of his leading traits. 

Things continued as normal but in the late 3-2 win over Aston Villa, a disgruntled fanbase made their feelings towards Xhaka known, cheering his substitution in the 71st minute. It happened again in the 1-0 away defeat to Sheffield United before Xhaka bit back when he was replaced against Crystal Palace.

Emery insisted Xhaka was wrong and must apologise for his actions after the game but despite several meetings between player, agent and club officials, there was absolute silence for four days until Xhaka released a statement on Instagram. It was more of an explanation than an apology with the player believed to be angry and standing by his reaction.

Again Emery had a decision to make about the captaincy but feared a player revolt if he took the armband away from Xhaka despite announcing the player was in the wrong and there were suggestions of another player vote. Another example of his lack of authority threatened to undermine him until yesterday when he revealed Xhaka had ‘accepted’ his decision to strip him of the captaincy and hand the role to Aubameyang. 

The captaincy saga may now be over but Xhaka's future is likely to remain a big talking point and the stain the whole situation has left on the club is huge. Has Xhaka played his last game for the club? Does Emery have any control? Is there a split between players and fans and how can it be repaired? 

Nothing like a trip to in-form Leicester City to help sort things out.

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