Granit Xhaka and the Critical Feedback Conundrum

“When you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent.” – Arsène Wenger

As you may be aware, I am a long time supporter of Arsenal FC (by far the greatest team the world has ever seen). Over the last 25 years in particular, the club has seen many ups and downs, from completing their third league and FA Cup double in 2002 and their unparalleled Invincibles season in 03/04, to the 10-2 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League (or maybe it was the 8-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford). Through thick and thin, Arsenal has always had a sense of unity, class, dignity and decorum about it which ran from the board to the fans and set it apart from other clubs both in England and around the world (although I acknowledge our North London neighbours would probably call it arrogance).

Sorry, not sorry

It’s called the Arsenal Way, and it’s been a hallmark of how the club and its community carry themselves for many years.

That is, until recently.

I can’t quite pinpoint when it started, but in recent years, there is a palpable sense of division and unpleasantness around the club and in the fans in particular. Maybe it was the failure to win the Champions League final in 2006 (after Barcelona pulled off what was one of the most blatant robberies in sports history), or perhaps it was the repeated instances of acrimonious departures of key players from the club such as Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie, Alexis Sanchez and even Patrick Vieira to an extent. Whenever it was, it’s become more and more visible in recent years – perhaps correlating with the rise of Arsenal Fan TV – and created enough vitriol and abuse that ultimately led to the pushing out of Arsenal’s most successful manager, Arsène Wenger in 2018.

Wise words.

Ah yes, Arsenal Fan TV – I’ll get to them in a moment.

This continuing escalation in belligerence, animosity and public haranguing of players, staff and the club in general found what I’m hoping is its nadir on October 27th 2019 at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium where Arsenal’s captain Granit Xhaka reacted badly to being booed by his own fans as he slowly walked off the pitch after being substituted in the second half, culminating in his throwing the captain’s armband on the ground, taking off his shirt in anger and telling Arsenal fans in the away support section of the ground to “F*ck off” twice. The entire scene went from the surreal to the genuinely shameful and all parties should be embarrassed by the disgrace brought to the club.

Examining the circumstances that led up to this abysmal episode, there has been a consistent level of abuse and vitriol directed at Xhaka by certain sections of the fans, particularly those with a public profile or large social media followings. I mentioned Arsenal Fan TV earlier, and whether you agree with me or not, they and the fans who offer their views on their social media channels are often at the forefront of negativity and sometimes outright abuse of players.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

There seems to be a direct correlation between the clicks (and therefore profit) they gather and the controversial views and harsh criticism they give. Moreover, there seems to always be a “villain of the week” they focus on at a given time; from Wenger to Shkrodan Mustafi (who gave a heartbreaking interview recently after years of criticism and abuse) and now Granit Xhaka. Is this bullying on a large scale? It’s for you to decide, but I don’t feel comfortable with it at all.

Social media can be wonderful in giving people a voice to be heard where they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity. Unfortunately, it also means that people feel the need to spout bile and hatefulness under the guise of “free speech”, and there is a noticeable sense of entitlement amongst certain sections of society who feel that their opinions must be heard, regardless of whether they have any merit or value whatsoever.

Granit Xhaka has reportedly received death threats and abuse directed at his wife and daughter. This is absolutely disgusting and the perpetrators should be identified and punished in the severest terms. But the rationale for all of this abuse is that because a number of Arsenal supporters were unhappy with Xhaka’s performances for the club and as captain, he was seemingly undroppable even when it seemed his displays didn’t warrant it. Regardless of his merit for retaining his place in the team, no one deserves to be abused for doing their job. It doesn’t matter if you get paid a cleaner’s salary or a footballer’s wages, no one has the right to insult you, threaten you or abuse you because they don’t feel you are performing to their expected standards.

By now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with business analysis. I promise that I’m getting to the point and that this is not just an Arsenal-related rant!

Fans will argue that they pay money and have expectations that the players will perform to a high standard. However, like it or not, the football pitch is a player’s place of employment, and no one enjoys coming into work each day only to be insulted and abused. There are times when bosses and colleagues will also look to leverage the argument that you are being paid to do a job and it must be possible to provide feedback to you when and where standards are not being met. There is truth in this and there should be a way to air views and provide constructive criticism.

However, we should be careful to ensure that criticism is not conflated with abuse.

I’ve spoken before about the need for people to protect themselves and their mental health in the workplace from my own experiences – both good and bad. As a very personal example, my wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time, was told by her manager that she had “f*cked up the rota” after being signed off with stress from her job as a nurse by her doctor at 36 weeks pregnant instead of 38 weeks. Much of this stress came from, in my view, the abrasive and unprofessional behaviour from said manager and her subordinates, where it seemed like there was a culture which propagated negativity and harsh criticism. Her manager’s comments were abuse rather than feedback, and shouldn’t be tolerated at all. Yet I’ve heard (and experienced personally) instances of similar or worse situations where BAs have been shouted at, told that their work was “sh*t” and been bullied and abused while doing their job.

This is clearly unacceptable, and irrespective of what a BA may or may not get paid, should have no place in any working environment.

No one has the right to verbally abuse you, bully you, swear at you, shout at you or behave towards you in a way that deliberately lessens your confidence or causes you to feel belittled, ashamed or afraid.

In particular, social media should not be used to harass you or make you feel uncomfortable. The ubiquitous nature of WhatsApp and FaceTime means that work colleagues often create group chats which can be great to build bonds, but also can be a means of bullying and harassment for individuals. You should exercise wisdom in deciding whether to get involved in these platforms from a professional capacity, but be aware that they can be channels for both positive and negative experiences in the workplace.

It remains to be seen how the Granit Xhaka situation unfolds, but I believe we all need to look at how we offer criticism and think about being a little bit kinder – whether it’s towards footballers in our favourite team, colleagues in our workplaces or even members of our families and friends.


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