Granit Xhaka has been one of the most conflicting figures among Arsenal fans.
As he celebrates his 28th birthday, it’s been a quite remarkable timeline for the midfielder who’s seen it all at Arsenal.
In 2016, Xhaka made his very highly anticipated move to the Gunners from Borussia Mönchengladbach for a fee in the region of £30m. Many fans thought we were finally getting our ‘Patrick Vieira’ replacement after all these years gone by, but instantly fans realised that was not the type of player Xhaka was.
Arsene Wenger used Xhaka as the deepest midfielder alongside Aaron Ramsey, an unfamiliar position for the Swiss international. He lacked the mobility and made too many rash decisions with and without the ball to be the last line of the midfield, and would often make it too easy for teams to slice through our midfield.
The next season was a lot more of the same. Although you could sense that we were starting to see improvements in his game as he was getting used to the pace of Premier League, it was still too easy for teams to bypass him.
The best of Granit Xhaka started to come out at the beginning of Unai Emery’s reign where he would no longer play as the deepest midfielder and would have more freedom to push forward and play his pinpoint long passes further up the pitch. The midfield duo of Lucas Torreira and Xhaka was one of the league’s best for the majority of the 2018/19 season, with both players having a great understanding of the pattern of play.
Torreira would sit deep and look to use all his energy to break up the play and Xhaka would look to pick up smart positions to help screen the back four. In possession, Torreira would play the short and simple passes to Xhaka so that he could play the more expansive and forward-thinking passes.
Fans were starting to realise the importance of Xhaka in our midfield.
Unfortunately, in the 2019/20 season under Emery, for some crazy reason, he decided to completely break up this midfield duo and started to utilise Torreira as an attacking midfielder, in order to win the ball higher up the pitch (which didn’t work at all). Xhaka was the one that was affected by this the most, and not it a good way.
Fans were starting to again get frustrated with the Swiss as he was being played as the deepest midfielder, but some fans also had sympathy with him as we all knew that he struggled in that role – despite Emery’s insistence to play him there.
Then came that one night on October 27th, where I think we all thought it was the end of his career at Arsenal. As the hour mark came, it was 2-2 against Crystal Palace and Xhaka’s number came up. He didn’t have a great game but what came after will never be forgotten.
Slowly walking off the pitch, the home fans were urging him to sprint. As Xhaka didn’t oblige, the fans then went on to ironically jeer his departure. Waving his arms around and then throwing the armband on the floor, he stormed into the tunnels. Xhaka was immediately stripped of the captaincy.
As all seemed lost, a move away back to Germany in the January transfer window looked inevitable but collapsed because of one man.
Arteta spoke to Xhaka and reiterated his importance in this Arsenal team. We quickly saw why. He was absolutely brilliant for the second half of the season and was one of the league’s best midfielders during that period.
He formed a brilliant duo with Dani Ceballos in the middle of the park in the new 3-4-3 formation, with some stand out performances – most notably against Manchester City in the 2-1 win in the FA Cup semi-final.
So, what does the future hold for Xhaka? His future at the club is now in very good stead. We have seen how solid he has become under Arteta and although he doesn’t have the captain’s armband, he is one of the team’s best leaders and he leaves everything out on the pitch every time he steps on it.
He brings a lot of composure and leadership into the spine of the team and has gained tons of experience at the top level since he joined Arsenal. Arteta really believes in him and has instilled the confidence and belief that Xhaka has needed all this time.
Going from the one that everyone wanted out of the club as soon as possible to becoming one of the first names on the teamsheet, Xhaka has performed one of the biggest turnarounds that we have seen from an individual at Arsenal for a very long time. If not ever. Happy birthday to him.