Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was brutally honest after his side’s defeat to Newcastle United at St James Park on Monday night. Barring a miracle, Arsenal will miss out in Champions League football next season and will have to settle for a place in the Europa League.
When asked by interviewers whether young players in the team felt the pressure of the situation – Arsenal have the youngest average age team in the league – Xhaka refused to accept that as an excuse: 'If someone isn’t ready for this game, stay at home. It doesn’t matter the age, you can be 30, you can be 35, you can be 10, you can be 18. If you’re not ready or you’re nervous, stay on the bench, stay at home, don’t come here. We need people to have balls, sorry to say that, to come here and play.'
His words caught many by surprise, used to the bland platitudes expressed by many players, all of whom are media-trained and savvy these days, in such situations. They are also a refreshing change. The performance was terrible and, with so much at stake the team and the players, collectively and individually fluffed their lines.
James Milner and former West Ham player Carlton Cole, now coaching Arsenal youth side, recently spoke of the need to address millennials in a way different from how players were spoken to in the past. Milner, 36, and Cole, 38, are hardly greybeards. They believe younger players no longer respond to confrontation and need a softer, gentler touch instead.
That, though, is to ignore a few fundamental truths. First, the players receive a great deal of money to play for clubs like Arsenal. They must also accept that pressure comes with the job. They also have a responsibility to the thousands o fans that spent their time and money travelling to the North-East of England on a Monday night to support them, plus the watching millions, many of them in different time zones.
They had a responsibility to the club as well as to themselves to produce a better account of themselves. Xhaka’s words may not have gone down well with some of them: he might have found himself sitting by himself on the plane home. However, if they are as honest with themselves as he was after the match, they will look in the mirror and admit he was right.
The truth has to be said even if it hurts.