In the 61st minute of Arsenal’s deflating 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace, Arsenal’s short but already frustrating season hit its nadir. Granit Xhaka, the oft-criticized midfielder and team-appointed captain, was subbed off for attacker Bukayo Saka as the Gunners chased a winning goal. What followed the substitution announcement was, in a word, ugly.
Auba picked the armband from the GROUND. #xhaka walking sluggishly when your team is chasing after goal. Barely shaked @UnaiEmery_. Threw shirt to the ground, walked straight into the tunnel. Shambolic. #afc pic.twitter.com/NPp0i3x8y2— Harrison Ifeanyichukwu (@Harrisonifeany3) October 27, 2019
Each moment was worse than the last. The chorus of cynical cheers echoing through the Emirates. A clearly frustrated Xhaka egging on the fans. Gesturing at the fans and telling them to “f*ck off” as the cheers turn into boos and whistles. Xhaka tearing off his kit, throwing it on the ground in anger as he stormed into the tunnel.
In those 30 seconds, Arsenal’s season became no longer about the game, and in many ways it was an indictment of the culture that has surrounded the Emirates during Unai Emery’s second season as Arsenal’s manager.
The immediate aftermath of the incident included vitriol from both ends. Countless fans have called for Xhaka to be stripped of his captaincy, while others took the more extreme stance that he should never suit up for the Gunners again.
Conversely, there has been also been hefty criticism towards the fans for the abuse leveled at Xhaka on Sunday, citing the lack of class in booing a club’s own players. Some have even elicited the words of Arsene Wenger, a man who single-handedly molded the club into one of the footballing world’s elite clubs in his two decades as manager, and who regularly fell on the sword for players after poor performances to protect them from criticism.
I never liked #Xhaka as a player, impulsive average player. But booing the captain of the team, regardless of what you think of him, is not what @Arsenal stands for as a club "Victoria Concordia Crescit". The fans who booed are a disgrace, and lack class and betay Wenger's elgacy pic.twitter.com/L6pYezSbOP— Bob Raptors (@RaptorsBob) October 27, 2019
The reality of the situation is this - both sides are right.
Xhaka’s behavior was clearly abhorrent, and has likely soured his relationship with the fans beyond the point of repair; I cannot recall a time when a player antagonized fans and came back to earning their support. The sight of Xhaka slamming his kit to the ground will forever be synonymous with his tenure at The Emirates. While Emery is set to hold talks with the players over Xhaka’s future as captain, it will be much harder to convince fans to embrace him after all is said and done.
The fans, on the other hand, made a mockery of the club and did a number on Arsenal’s reputation with their petulance and acrimony leveled at Xhaka as he was subbed off. Fans of rival clubs delighted in seeing Arsenal’s fans cannibalize their own, a clear indicator to many that the Gunners remains as rudderless as they were in the seasons leading up to Wenger’s resignation.
In many ways, we did this to ourselves.
Fans are well within their rights to be upset with the decisions made by players. After all, we buy their kits and chant their names, and our revenue pays for their wages. We expect better when they wear the kit because we hold the club and players to a high, often unreasonable, standard. And when they are chosen to be the leaders of our teams, we certainly expect them to conduct themselves as such. We expect many things, and more often than not, said things are delivered. If they weren’t, we would struggle to remain fans.
We are not, however, owed anything. Our allegiances to our clubs are a one-way avenue. They do not ask us personally to be fans, nor do they promise us anything once we become them. The players we love or hate are bought and sold as part of the ebb and flow of teams chasing both accolades and revenue, but certainly far more of the latter. Success only magnifies the feeling that we are “owed” further success, lest the club let us down. It is a misguided notion, but one that has caused the current situation.
That fact does not stop us from feeling personally slighted when things go awry and acting irrationally and impulsively. Buying planes to fly overhead, making banners to deride players and managers, loudly chanting songs in mockery all scream “we deserve better!” Or, in yesterday’s case, cheering when one of the club’s most divisive players is subbed off in the middle of a frustrating match and publicly calling for his dismissal from the club after he takes offense to the display. That’s the sort of action that makes it harder to convince other players to join in the future, because who would want to play for fans that turn on their players the way fans turned on Xhaka on Sunday?
While this isn’t a call for fans to let bygones be bygones and forgive the veteran midfielder, the fans have to own the fact that they dragged the club into a negative light just as much as Xhaka did. For as much talk as there has been about “culture” at the club following the horrorshow display on Sunday, that culture is one that fans have a massive hand in, both in creating it and destroying it.
The current culture crisis at The Emirates is not one that can be fixed easily, but it is one that both fans and players have to take responsibility for and act upon quickly before the culture turns irreparably toxic.