Mikel Arteta faces test of resolve amid Granit Xhaka betrayal and Arsenal mutiny
Back in August, Granit Xhaka revealed how it had been Mikel Arteta, recently appointed as the club’s new head coach, who persuaded him to stay at Arsenal in December 2019.
Then, Xhaka was public enemy No.1 at the Emirates, his career in North London looking set to end after the then-club captain told his own supporters of “f*** off” while being jeered as he was substituted against Crystal Palace in October.
Unai Emery defended Xhaka in public, but banished the Swiss international from first-team training in a bid to quell growing unrest on the terraces.
Ultimately, the Spaniard was shown the door 12 months ago, sacked by the club’s hierarchy despite having reached the Europa League Final just seven months previously.
Xhaka, contemplating an escape route back to Germany with Hertha BSC, held talks with Arteta, who quickly told him to front up, roll up his sleeves and set about repairing his relationship with the club’s fanbase.
“I was very, very close to leaving the club,” said Xhaka. “But when Mikel arrived, I had a very good meeting with him, very good conversations.
“Mikel was the guy."
The 27-year-old, indeed knuckled down, playing a key role in the club’s FA Cup triumph and their subsequent Community Shield success.
Back in the good books of supporters, and emboldened by the faith of his manager, Xhaka insisted: “The most important thing for me is Mikel believes in me, he trusts me and I want to give this back each training and each game.”
Now however, Xhaka must produce another act of rehabilitation after his sending off in Sunday night’s 1-0 defeat to Burnley – for stupidly grabbing Ashley Westwood around the throat – further exacerbated Arsenal’s mounting problems.
A season that began full of hope and optimism – and with the head coach effectively being promoted by being named manager in a club restructure – has turned into a nightmare, with the Gunners currently 15th in the Premier League, and having lost four straight home matches – their worst run since 1959.
With a misfiring attack having scored just 10 times in 12 matches, and a lack of confidence eating away at the side, they haven’t won a league game since November 1 – 1-0 at Manchester United – taking just one point from the last 15 on offer; frustration has returned to the terraces and Kieran Tierney’s honest assessment on Sunday night said it all.
“It’s not good enough. There is no way to disguise it. It’s terrible, to be honest.”
When asked if Xhaka had let him down in his post-match press conference, Arteta, visibly angry, positively unwilling to look directly at the Zoom call when Xhaka’s name was mentioned, said: "He's made a mistake, clearly, that has cost us.
“The way the game was going, the dominance that we had – we were prepared, knowing this was a game we clearly had to win, but with 10 men it makes it much more difficult.
"You give the opponent a chance and you end up losing on a set-piece.”
Asked if Xhaka’s actions were “unacceptable” – a word Arteta had used to describe Nicolas Pepe’s dismissal at Leeds, Arteta said simply: “Absolutely.”
Clearly frustrated, Arteta continued: “Yes it is unacceptable to do that action but it is because they are so willing to do more, fight more, and on this occasion Granit has overstepped the line.
“There is another action with Mo [Elneny], that looks similar. We cannot make that mistake because it’s the wrong approach for what we are trying to do.”
Now Arteta, amid claims that he isn’t talking to David Luiz – dismissed by the Brazilian – and of a potential dressing room mutiny led by the ostracised Mesut Ozil and Sokratis, is under mounting pressure.
It was bad enough when they just weren’t creating chances and their highest-paid player was merely offering up frequent social media reminders on Instagram and Twitter.
But with calls to banish Xhaka like the aforementioned duo or Matteo Guendouzi – on loan at Hertha Berlin and not used again after the fallout from grabbing Neal Maupay around the throat back in June – Arteta is facing a full-blown crisis.
Increasingly, the ex-Manchester City assistant, still less than one year into his first managerial job is cutting a fraught, unhappy figure, one who appears to see his side’s creative issues, but is struggling to make any kind of discernible change to proceedings while relying on the club’s senior players
Crossing has become the new vanguard for attacks, but despite his “pure maths” claim after the loss to Wolves, the 44 deliveries that yielded no goals at Spurs and Sunday night’s latest no score – when they either snatched at chances or were denied by Nick Pope – it simply isn’t working.
The arrival of Southampton on Wednesday night, now fourth after their 3-0 win over Sheffield United on Sunday, is hardly ideal; the fixture will be the first of three for which, Xhaka will be absent due to suspension.
But whether his absence extends beyond the suspension imposed by the Premier League and the FA, will be down to his manager.
In that interview in September, Xhaka continued: "He [Arteta] turned me around and gave me a second chance.
"He showed me he trusted me and I have tried to give him everything back.”
For now, Xhaka will be hoping he hasn't run out of second chances and that Arteta still has some semblance of belief in him.
If Arteta's trust has been irrevocably broken, then the Swiss may finally find himself with no way back in North London.
That is unless panic from above sees another Spaniard head through the Emirates exit door first.
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