After Granit Xhaka was booed off the field by his own fans when Arsenal faced Crystal Palace and stripped off the club’s captaincy, the end of his time at the club seemed near. While Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Torreira are other players that need to be credited for their recent form under new manager Mikel Arteta, the Swiss international deserves a special mention, especially because of his perseverance as well as versatility.
With many of the club’s ultras believing Xhaka should have been sold to Germany’s Hertha Berlin when they reportedly came calling with a bid of 40 million euros, Xhaka has found a new lease of life under Arteta. Burdened with a massive temperament, the former Borussia Monchengladbach captain arrived in England in 2016. Although he has received only two red cards – in his debut season – he has amassed over 30 yellow cards in three and a half seasons at the Emirates.
However, with higher standards to meet under the new manager, Xhaka’s toned down attitude has become evident in his performances. He has featured in 10 of Arteta’s 11 games this season, with Arsenal losing 2-1 at home against Chelsea being the only match he was forced to miss due to illness. A testament to his dedication was clear to the manager after Xhaka’s performance in Arsenal’s win over Manchester United at the turn of the decade.
After the game, Arteta was quick to appreciate Xhaka’s game, "I like everything about him. His commitment, I like the way he is, the way he lifts his profession, how focused he is. Every time I am talking, he is listening and is willing to learn. He is a great football player. The way we want to play, there are not many with his quality on the ball, his range of pass, so I am delighted to have him."
The key reason for the faith in Xhaka is his ability to slot into either a left-back or centre back role when his team has possession. This gives freedom to makeshift wingback Bukayo Saka to make forward runs. Saka added another assist to his name against Olympiakos with an inch-perfect pass, setting up Alexandre Lacazette for the winner. While many legends including Robin Van Persie have lauded the youngster for his ‘world-class assist’, his runs are only possible because Xhaka possesses the ability to slot into Saka’s role during the need of the hour.
Arteta’s main objective when joining the club was not to bring results but to bring the fans back to the stadium by playing a brand of attractive attacking football. The Spaniard has built his pivot around Xhaka and the midfielder can finally stake his place as a midfield maestro for the club.
Xhaka was brought into the club as a temperamental 23-year-old midfielder but three seasons on, he has established himself as a mainstay in the Arsenal midfield, making 117 appearances for the Gunners. Under Arteta, however, the Swiss player has a chance to establish his identity as a leader in the middle of the park for the fans, as well as finally deliver on his promise of being the answer to Arsenal’s midfield crisis for the foreseeable future.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Adrian Dennis