Granit Xhaka’s resurrection epitomises Arsenal’s own


The net nestled and the Emirates erupted. Thomas Partey’s pinpoint curler from 25 yards had given Arsenal the lead in the North London derby with 20 minutes on the clock and bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur had been firmly on the back foot for most of that.

Early signs suggested it was shaping up to be a good day’s work for the Gunners but one man was hell-bent on ensuring costly complacency remained at bay: after the initial celebrations and laudations of Partey’s goal, Granit Xhaka ordered the ten outfielders into a huddle, reminding them — finger vigorously pointing to his head — to remain switched on.

For a player so often associated with heightened on-pitch emotions and its symptoms, including recklessness and losses of temper, Xhaka brought a cool composure to that moment of sheer jubilation, something which testifies to his personal development.

Martin Odegaard wears the armband these days but the Switzerland skipper’s leadership credentials are not to be underestimated. Now, his influence on the pitch has finally come to mirror his sway and esteem in the dressing room. In a purely footballing sense, Xhaka has emerged as, truly, one of Arsenal’s most important players, a key cog in the machine that Mikel Arteta has spent the last three years constructing.

Arguably the biggest cheer of a joyous day on the red half of North London came when Arsenal’s third was powered home by Xhaka. The 30-year old, positioned almost as a second striker as Gabriel Martinelli received the ball on the left edge of the area, nicked it off the Brazilian before powering past Hugo Lloris and into the bottom corner to send the Emirates into raptures.

Chants of “We’ve got Granit Xhaka!” echoed around the ground as he lapped up the extolment from fans and teammates alike. It was a goal and celebration, a moment, which underlined Xhaka’s importance to the Gunners and his strong, mutually affectionate bond with the club’s supporters.

It hasn’t always been this way; indeed, there’s been quite some journey up to this point.

Xhaka joined Arsenal for a fee of around £30million back in the summer of 2016. There was tangible excitement amongst the Gunners faithful at acquiring a player who had captained former club Borussia Monchengladbach as young as 22 and had also registered impressive performances on the continental and international stages, especially while representing Switzerland at Euro 2016.

But, as it turned out, the club was entering a period of decline. Although they had finished 2nd in the season prior, Arsenal’s points tally of 71 remains the third-lowest ever recorded by a Premier League runner-up, before 2016/17 resulted in a 5th-placed finish and failure to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in two decades.

Fairly or not, Xhaka — as a near-permanent fixture in defensive midfield since his arrival — became something of a poster boy for Arsenal’s downfall, his impetuousness and competitive edge juxtaposed in a negative sense with the Gunners’ increasing reputation for mental fragility and gutlessness. He was the outlier and therefore the most liable to blame. The midfielder’s relationship with the fanbase appeared to suffer as a result: by and large, his was not a popular name for a number of years.

It all reached boiling point on 27 October 2019 when, while the Gunners were being held at 2-2 on home turf by Crystal Palace, Xhaka was withdrawn by manager Unai Emery. The substitution was greeted with ironic cheers and applause from the home fans. The midfielder, booed as he departed the field, responded by cupping his ears to the crowd and cursing the reaction of those in attendance, before promptly storming off down the tunnel.

At this point, it probably seemed to all parties involved that there was no way back; a suspension from the first team followed and the groundwork was laid for Xhaka’s departure at the earliest opportunity. Few would have predicted that, three years after that infamous incident, he would have reemerged as one of the most important — and most adored — players at the Emirates.

But here we are, and he’s done just that. The strength of character shown to rebuild bridges burnt between himself and the club’s supporters, to keep putting himself under the spotlight when other less determined players might have caved in and moved elsewhere, is beyond commendable.

That he has been able to retain his place in the starting 11 amid a thorough, sweeping rebuild at the Emirates demonstrates his importance from the outset. Regardless of supporter opinion, he has almost perpetually been one of the first names on the team sheet right from his arrival under Arsene Wenger, through Emery’s tenure and into the present Arteta era.

Clearly, managers see something tangibly positive about the midfielder’s presence which made it worthwhile persisting with Xhaka even through the darkest hours of his career. Perhaps his most infectious trait is his competitiveness, his steadfast determination to win. Sure, it can on occasion boil over into ill-discipline but, when channeled positively and productively, it turns him into a real force. Every successful team needs players, and people, like that.

The ways in which defeat affects the midfielder were conveyed well in Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing’ documentary following Arsenal in the 2021/22 season. Winning is his drug and he’ll stop at nothing to experience the high. That kind of attitude and resoluteness will doubtless rub off on his teammates; perhaps, over time, it has contributed to the creation of the overtly confident Gunners team we are watching today.

Xhaka’s unwavering dedication to the cause has never been in doubt. Now, with the trust of Arteta — the role of the Spaniard, as the man who restored him into the fold, has been pivotal — and the support and affection of the fans, he has been given the platform from which to find more productive ways of channeling his competitive edge.

The 30-year old owes an awful lot to Arteta, not just for the extent of his development under his tutelage, but for the receipt of the opportunity of redemption in the first place. But how exactly has his game improved so drastically? And what specifically has the manager done to get the best out of him? He is now a player transformed, a totally different tactical asset to that which arrived in 2016.

Xhaka arrived in North London as a deep-lying playmaker but, as alluded to earlier, this season he has been operating much higher up the pitch. The tactical benefits of this are numerous. Positioning him more towards the attacking third than the defensive one goes some way towards mitigating the midfielder’s difficulty with positional awareness and recklessness in the tackle.

It also allows Xhaka the opportunity to use his pinpoint passing and ball-striking ability to contribute more directly to goals. With two to his name already and a further three assists on top of that, the midfielder is well on his way towards enjoying his most productive campaign in terms of goal contributions: a total of five from eight games looks certain to beat his current personal best of eight in 2017/18.

Credit must be attributed here to Arteta and his tactical grasp; that Xhaka’s traits and abilities would be better utilised higher up the pitch was not explicitly obvious from the outset. Indeed, it has proven such an innovative, effective move that opposition teams are still desperately struggling to contain him, their endeavours to do so in turn freeing up space for those around him on the left side of the pitch.

Martinelli enjoyed arguably one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt against Tottenham at the weekend, his energy and dynamism proving borderline impossible for Emerson Royal to deal with. The Brazilian deserves enormous praise for his performance but also in turn owes an awful lot to Xhaka, whose ability to penetrate and confound the Spurs defence with both his passing and his movement gave the winger the freedom to wreak havoc from the left.

In essence, the benefits of Xhaka’s new role — both to himself and to Arsenal’s performances at large — are abundant. Continuing in this vein will set both the player and his club up for one of their most fruitful campaigns in recent memory.

The fact that Arteta has been able to improve Xhaka — a player already approaching his late 20s when the Spaniard took over — so drastically bodes well for his potential to get the most out of Arsenal’s younger prospects, as the emergence of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe proves. The midfielder is something of a mentor for the youth in the team, now not only as a respected voice and authority, but as one of the best players at the club and as a case study for personal development and perseverance.

Sticking with Arteta — and, indeed, with Xhaka — look even better decisions by the day. Currently sitting atop the Premier League table, the Gunners are going places and these two are key figures in both the journey that got them here and that which lies ahead. Victory in the North London derby merely corroborated two things which have been known for a while now: Xhaka is a man reborn and Arsenal are a club revived.

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