Watching Arsenal over recent seasons, since Arsène lost his magic touch at the time of the premature break-up of the Invincibles, with the evident disinterest of an owner concerned only with the bottom line value of his asset and an apathetic, if not increasingly disenfranchised fanbase, hasn’t been an especially thrilling experience.
The dog days of Arsène’s reign were characterised by a feeling that the club and its structure had been left behind by more ambitious ‘rivals’(sic) prepared to commit eye-wateringly vast sums of money to the pursuit of success. A hauntingly real sense that if there was indeed any vision of the future for the club, no one was especially sure how we might get there.
Even since Arsène was forced out resigned to be replaced by Head Coach Unai Emery, there is an inescapable sense of listlessness around the whole place, an acceptance of mediocrity as long as the coffers keep on filling up. Last season’s humdrum results right at the season end consigned us to another season in the Europa League and its associated Thursday-Sunday matchday torturous routine. The games themselves feel like something to be tolerated, if not endured, rather than enjoyed.
However two incidents in the game against Crystal Palace last Sunday at least roused us from our purgatorial slumber. First, recently appointed, but certainly far from popular, club captain Granit Xhaka, threw an immature strop after being jeered by the crowd as he was substituted. Then late on Arsenal had what pretty much everyone in the ground thought was a bona fide winner ruled out in yet another highly questionable VAR intervention.
What now for Arsenal’s captain?
It is probably fair to say that ever since his arrival from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2016 Granit Xhaka has categorically failed to win over the minds let alone the hearts of Arsenal fans. A clear lack of mobility, poor tackling technique leading to a string of bookings and the occasional but hardly unexpected red card, and a spectacular penchant for rash decisions rivalled only by fellow target for the Emirates’ crowd’s ire, Shkodran Mustafi, have had many of us questioning just why Xhaka has seemed to be one of the first names on the team-sheet under both Arsène and Unai?
Where we hoped we had the solution to our long-glaring need for a properly effective defensive midfielder, we soon realised that Xhaka wasn’t that man. Yet he still keeps getting picked which suggests that there is something that better qualified football people, ie his managers at club and international level, see that we can’t?
In an excellent tactical analysis which features on the Arseblog site (https://arseblog.com/2019/10/tactics-column-ozils-absence-makes-xhaka-redundant/), Lewis Ambrose suggests that Xhaka’s on-pitch value lies in a metric called “packing”, developed by former German international and current Bayer Leverkusen sporting director, Simon Rolfes, this measures “how many players are ‘beaten’ by passes or dribbles in an individual match”. Prior to his arrival at Arsenal, Xhaka rated highly using this metric “as a player who found team-mates with passes that beat opposition players”. His signing was clearly intended to pair him with a certain Mesut Özil, a player rated as one of the most effective in world football in being able to “find space to receive the ball behind defenders”.
However ever since taking up the role of Head Coach it has become increasingly apparent, rightly or wrongly, that Emery doesn’t see Özil as part of his plans for how his team progresses up the field and attacks the opposition; thus dulling Xhaka’s contribution from an attacking point of view. As a result it is easy to see why so many question Xhaka’s continued selection let alone why he was made captain in the first place?
Xhaka has also suffered from Arsenal’s ongoing decline, the team having failed to qualify for the Champions League each season that he has been at the club. As such he will always be associated with Arsenal’s falling away from European football’s top table.
Emery’s prevarication on appointing a replacement for Laurent Koscielny and the fudged option of having five captains and hiding behind a player vote convinced absolutely no one that Xhaka was anything other than Hobson’s choice, the default selection based on seniority, experience and a first choice starter.
Whether he is rated or not by the Gooner faithful, what happened on Sunday evening was simply inexcusable. While it cannot be nice to hear people around the ground cheering your replacement, although in actual fact the majority of the treatment he got was to try to encourage him to hurry up in leaving the field as we desperately needed a goal, there was no excuse for his histrionics and apparently telling the crowd to “F**k off!”.
Understandably there have been calls for Xhaka to be stripped of the captaincy and it is highly unlikely that his delayed ‘apology’ issued yesterday will persuade anyone otherwise.
How the fans will respond to Xhaka the next time he takes to the pitch in an Arsenal shirt will be interesting to see. In the past Arsenal captains have been guilty of significantly worse things than throwing their toys out the pram on being substituted; the problem for Xhaka is that his lack of discernible contribution on the pitch won’t encourage anyone to forgive and forget any time soon. It will however be highly intriguing to see who ‘pens’ the captain’s programme notes on Saturday afternoon for the visit of Wolves!
The principle of VAR makes sense; it is the implementation that is the issue.
After the whole hullabaloo around Xhaka we were then treated another outstanding piece of VAR-based intervention as Sokratis’ strike with just minutes remaining was ruled out for a barely perceptible ‘foul’ by Calum Chambers. Thus far Arsenal fans have had little grounds to complain about VAR as it has applied to us, Aubameyang’s rightly awarded equalizer at Old Trafford wouldn’t have been given without it; equally the penalty awarded to Palace on Sunday fell in the ‘seen them given’ territory. The decision to not award the winning goal however was simply incorrect.
VAR, as we keep being reminded, was brought in to address ‘clear and obvious errors’, yet what we are seeing on a week by week basis is judgement on issues that no one thought were issues until they started to be flagged by those sitting watching the match on monitor screens at Stockley Park. Not only that but the time spent deliberating on these decisions that don’t need to made sucks the very lifeblood out of the atmosphere at the ground.
In other sports such as both codes of rugby, cricket, tennis etc. the use of video replay intervention has been handled in such a way that it actually adds to the drama and tension for the paying customer, rather than destroying it.
The concept of using technology as a back-up is a sound one, but the implementation of its use to the extent that it is ruining the experience most particularly for those in the stadium needs to be addressed immediately. Apparently so far this season in the Premier League VAR has been used to overturn a total of 26 decisions, however not once has this been by the referee checking his decision on the pitchside monitor, suggesting that it is those watching the screens who are in actual fact making the decisions.
Last weekend alone we saw Manchester City awarded a goal even when David Silva had indicated he had touched the ball rendering Raheem Sterling offside and Brighton awarded a penalty against Everton for Michael Keane accidentally stepping on Aaron Connolly’s foot, that is of course on top of the farcical scenes at the Emirates.
Perhaps the officiating powers that be, (yes that’s you Mike Riley!) ought to let the referees get back to refereeing the game with the technology only used for the very difficult calls, to either confirm or correct the referee’s initial decision. I am pretty sure that Premier League life would have carried on even if City hadn’t been awarded their second goal, Brighton hadn’t got the penalty and Arsenal’s winner had been allowed to stand!