October 2019, with Arsenal being held 2-2 by Crystal Palace, Granit Xhaka was subbed.
As he walked off the jeers were apparent. Our then captain responded by cupping his ears and encouraging the crowd to chant louder …. which they did. Our skipper then threw the armband to the floor.
The midfielder had been subjected to this in previous fixtures, but it wasn’t as apparent as we had won those games. The Swiss had long been an easy scapegoat. Along with the likes of Mustafi, it had become an unfortunate trend among our fan base to single out certain individuals for critique.
This was Gooners venting. From no longer being able to ‘only finish 4th’, to the humiliation in Baku, to the decline under Unai Emery, throwing away a 2-0 lead at home to the Eagles was enough for some.
Nearly three years on, the same player isn’t just playing for the Gunners, he’s scoring crucial goals. Like his strike last season against Man United, Xhaka’s goal in the NLD saw the Emirates collectively put their arms round a man they are now proud to have wearing their shirt, he’s now a popular scorer. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still got a mistake and a dodgy red card in him, but just for a moment on Saturday, player and Gooners were united.
The 28-year-old has admitted to being open to a return to Germany the January following him being stripped of the captaincy. He was content with the assumption he would never represent the Gunners again, especially when he refused his manager’s advice to apologise for his actions.
That’s worth remembering. Xhaka has never said sorry, and while some can’t forgive that, others admired a man sticking to his principles and not letting his employers pressure him into not sticking to his moral compass. Instead, he turned the attention on ‘supporters’. We would then learn the true scale of abuse he was suffering daily, in the stands, when driving home, online, etc. These included wishes that his wife died and that his baby daughter got cancer!
Bearing in mind, he wasn’t the only member of huis dressing room talking about how ‘fans’ abuse was impacting his mental health.
For an institution that has always prided itself on doing things the right way and acting with class, it was an embarrassment for Arsenal to see such a breakdown between players and their fans.
In his final months in North London, Mr Wenger had warned that the club were in danger of losing the principles he had worked so hard to create ……. he had been proven correct.
Some to this day will maintain that this was deflection on behalf of the player, but it did make a fan base discuss the topic of what is supporting? and where is that line?
Like most things, we educate ourselves through conversation and fans were now having one. Is it a coincidence that soon after this, chants of ‘AFTV Get Out Of Our Club‘ were audible at away games?
The Youtube Channel had become famous for essentially who could shout the loudest and say the most swear words.
It was Arteta who refused to sign off on Xhaka rejoinng the Bundesliga. One of the first things the rookie boss did was ask Xhaka to give him till the summer to change his mind.
This was Arsenal’s third full time manager who saw the CM as crucial to his first 11, indicating that maybe spectators didn’t appreciate tactically how important Xhaka was to the team.
The Spaniard was able to utterly transition the villain back into the squad with attention on the new regime.
His display in the FA Cup Final made his detractors (while not forgive) but at least forget. In many ways, Xhaka’s campaign mirrored the teams …. he had made something beautiful out of an ugly situation.
Last campaign, red cards at the Etihad and Anfield left many to question would he ever learn, and after so many seasons had he been given too many chances?
An interview he took part in again divided opinion. To some, there was a lack of accountability for his mistakes. Others felt the piece painted him in a good light, he cared, and if nothing else was a fighter. This was none the more apparent than when we threw away Champions League qualification in May after consecutive defeats at Spurs and Newcastle.
He said what every fan wanted to hear, that the two performances had been unacceptable, that we had bottled it …. he didn’t offer excuses or talk about what if’s. In that one moment it was clear that, while not official, he was still our main leader in that dressing room. He knew the standards the badge demanded, and it was his responsibility to tell his peers they had fallen short.
With some calling 5th progress, how refreshing to hear at least someone in the squad wasn’t accepting such failure.
That was showcased in Amazon’s All Or Nothing Series where you could argue Xhaka came across better than any of his peers. In a group that have had their mentality questioned, Xhaka was always the most vocal.
Arteta had a fantastic first press conference as a manager. Great soundbites and what people wanted to hear. Yet did the Spaniard mean what he was saying or was its PR talk?
He stressed that he wanted to bring the players and squad together as he acknowledged it had drifted in his years away.
He wanted those sitting at the Emirates to like what they were watching, but be proud of their players again.
You can’t deny our boss has done that. By bringing in British kids from the academy Arsenal have a core group that fans can relate too. By bringing in youth, fans realise that sometimes they need to be the 12th man, that it would be counterproductive to complain if it’s 0-0 after an hour.
It’s created an atmosphere at our stadium that consistently I never thought I would hear again.
Then there’s a change in the player’s role. Still in the middle, but less responsibility to sit, a licence to be creative and join in attacks.
All of this has led to Xhaka being embraced.
Some won’t forget …I’m sure he will never forget what his family went through.
Yet like all families, sometimes you can argue and move on. You never forget but forgive.
In an era where Arsenal’s mental strength is questioned, Xhaka is the exceptions. In his own way, he’s mentally strong and resilient
He stood by his convictions without the backing of those who paid his wages.
He told his truth knowing some would discredit him.
He is our leader after all.
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