The Spanish coach has allowed a scenario to develop where he no longer commands the dressing room and it has resulted in disharmony
Arsenal head to Liverpool on Wednesday evening for a game that should be dominating the news agenda around both clubs.
The Carabao Cup tie sees two of the top teams in the country going head to head at Anfield, with a place in the quarter-finals at stake. But, instead, if you scour the papers or search online, most of the discussion ahead of the clash centres around one man: Granit Xhaka, a soccer professional who will not even be involved.
Unai Emery held his pre-match press conference on Tuesday at London Colney and once the usual customaries were out of the way, the conversation immediately turned to Xhaka and the fall-out from Sunday’s game against Crystal Palace.
It had been nearly 48 hours since Arsenal’s captain left the pitch to a chorus of boos, cupping his ears, arms outstretched while clearly telling his own supporters to ‘f*ck off’.
During that time we had all expected some sort of statement from the club and the soccer professional, especially after Emery had publicly labelled Xhaka’s actions as wrong in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s game. But a statement didn’t materialise.
That left Emery to face the music himself during his sit down with the press on Tuesday, something he did in a fairly impressive manner given the circumstances. But the whole situation has been an ugly one, one that saw head of football Raul Sanllehi and technical director Edu travel to London Colney for talks with Emery on Monday.
Emery finds himself in a very difficult position and it comes at a time when the spotlight has been already on him because of his team’s poor results and dire performances.
Publicly, he has handled it well and said the right things – but Arsenal’s head coach must take a large part of the blame for the impasse that the club currently finds itself in.
Arsenal want Xhaka to apologise and they have been trying to make that happen almost from the moment the midfielder trudged off the pitch against Palace, shirt in hand having flung the captain’s armband in the direction of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
“I think we make individual mistakes and we need to make apologies for one circumstance,” said Emery. “We suggest him to do that (apologise).
“We are seeing that he has been devastated and very down. First has been to look after him. We need our family, our friends, our supporters to support us, like us, love us. He has been not feeling that with the supporters at the moment.”
The problem for Arsenal has been that, as it stands, Xhaka doesn’t want to apologise.
The 27-year-old has been passionate – some describe him as ‘stubborn’ – and he feels he has been treated unfairly by those who should be supporting him.
And crucially for Xhaka, he has the support of the majority of his team-mates, the same team-mates who overwhelmingly voted him in as captain just a matter of weeks ago.
This has been where Emery’s major problem lies.
Xhaka isn’t his captain, he’s the players’ captain – even if the Spaniard still made the final call on who took the armband. His indecision over a replacement for Laurent Koscielny was ridiculous and now he has been paying the price in the worst possible way.
He appears weak to the fans and to his players. Emery stated that Xhaka was in the wrong immediately after the draw with Palace and has now publicly admitted that he should apologise.
That should be enough for any soccer professional to come out and say sorry, but, right now, Xhaka’s silence has been deafening. In fact, the only thing he has done on social media since Sunday has been remove all trace of Arsenal from his Instagram page, changing his profile picture to one with him representing Switzerland.
Xhaka has been a strong minded, complex character and with the support of his team-mates, he feels strong enough to defy Emery’s wishes and remain silent. And it leaves Emery in an extremely difficult position.
In failing to name his own captain and opening the whole thing up to a vote, he has handed his players the power and he has been paying a heavy price.
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The longer this goes on, the weaker he looks publicly, but he knows that by stripping Xhaka of the captaincy or forcing an apology, he risks alienating himself from his squad at a time when he has been already under mounting pressure.
Emery will be thankful he can concentrate on Liverpool on Wednesday night but as soon as the game has been over at Anfield, the focus will again switch to his captain ahead Wolves’ visit to the Emirates on Saturday.
The Spaniard needs to be decisive and to take charge of the situation, something he has completely failed to do thus far.