Thursday, June 13

Xhaka answers social-media criticism, provocative pundits

At home, Arsenal had lost three Premier League games in a row and needed something badly from Burnley’s visit in mid-December.

It didn’t prove straightforward and Xhaka felt his blood run hot with the game level at 0-0 in the 56th minute. With a foul on Dwight McNeil, he had caused the flashpoint and, from that point, it got out of control. McNeil squared up to Xhaka, who had never gone back down. And then Ashley Westwood, another Burnley player, arrived on the scene.

Westwood went down and Xhaka’s red card was inevitable in a frustrating way. After the legendary Crystal Palace incident in October 2019, it was a similar story when Xhaka was booed off by a portion of the Emirates Stadium supporters. He was taken out of the squad for a month and stripped of the captaincy, and his future at the club once again looked grim. Back then, his Arsenal career looked over.

This year starting on Boxing Day, the wider picture shows five league wins in eight matches, with two draws. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Xhaka is in the shape of his five Arsenal seasons. He himself feels it. Whether he has earned the credit that he deserves is doubtful, with some having already drawn their conclusions about him. But the proof was there for us to see.

In his one-on-one defending, Xhaka won his duels, exhibiting power and judgment. He passed with sharpness and incision, and in his forming midfield partnership with Thomas Partey, he brought balance. “We started in Switzerland with less than zero,” Xhaka says. “We had nothing, we knew nobody there. It’s difficult for people to grasp today the effect of something like that; essentially to be a political refugee as a youngster. It’s definitely part of my character to be a strong person. I have never run away from anything.

“There have to be boundaries to the criticism,” Xhaka says. “For example, there should be no references to any player’s family, personal attacks and certainly no mention of any player’s children. Criticize the player and his game by all means but keep it within that area. Don’t go too far. “I had the big thing against Palace. I’ve also had the Burnley issue and October 2019 was the hardest time for me as a footballer. But the attacks on my wife and the targeted comments about my daughter, my friends – that’s really beyond the pale. One of the problems is we don’t know who is writing this stuff; this is the nature of social media.

“As I say, criticize the player. I’m the one on the pitch. But your family and friends are nothing to do with it. It’s happened recently with [the Manchester United striker] Anthony Martial and his wife receiving some hostile comments. You have to ask yourself: ‘Why?’”

Xhaka describes the players-turned-pundits as having the potential to cause the pile ons of social media. He feels that their attacks can be more personal and violent than those he previously played in Switzerland and Germany. Patrice Evra announced, after the Burnley red card, that Thierry Henry had once turned off the TV and declined to watch an Arsenal game when he saw Xhaka as captin of the club.

“There have been comments made by Evra, Henry, they make them as ex-players, sometimes about the performance of a particular player, and they kind of invite that wave of social media criticism,” Xhaka says. “I think some pundits might actually be provoking that criticism. It’s something you never see in Switzerland or Germany, that just doesn’t happen. It seems to be rather unique to the United Kingdom.”

Xhaka doesn’t want to focus on the controversy over the Palace. He says “it’s going to stay with me, as a player, it’s a part of my history.” It was enough to claim that it was “not pleasant and difficult to describe.” He adds: “It’s something I would never wish for any player that feeling no one should have to experience.”

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