Arteta Led Him Out of Rock Bottom. Now Xhaka is Leading Arsenal Into the Future.

Granit Xhaka has always been a leader. After he was first signed by Arsenal six years ago, he even famously said it himself: “When I was younger, even though I had a big brother, my parents would give me the house keys every day. It’s in my head that I am a leader.” Normally a straight shooter, Xhaka was not lying here. Not only had his parents given him the keys to the house, but Andre Schubert had given him the keys to Borussia Monchengladbach when the Swiss midfielder was only 22 years old. As the German club languished at the bottom of the Bundesliga, interim manager chose Xhaka over veterans like Yann Sommer or Lars Stindl to lead the team.

Accordingly, Xhaka’s signing was hailed by media outlets as one that finally would bring some grit to Arsenal. After relying on diminutive playmakers in midfield for so long, Arsene Wenger had seemingly required some much-needed steel. But despite correctly identifying him as a box-to-box midfielder, Wenger never quite figured out how to use him.

All good leaders possess, among others, two specific traits. First, they have a steadfast commitment to supporting the people around them. In addition to that, they have the courage to do what is best for the group, even if it is not what is best for them. Naturally, Xhaka has these qualities. However, they put him in a difficult position for the first few years of his time in north London.

Ever the good soldier, Xhaka played the role he was asked to. Unfortunately, that role was as a defensive midfielder (or a deep-lying playmaker if you asked the manager at the time) during the back end of the Wenger era. Then it was a lone six during Unai Emery’s tenure as head coach. In a team with aging defenders, positionally undisciplined players, a lack of athleticism, and little defensive instruction from the manager, someone had to cover large swathes of the pitch and attempt to bail the Gunners out in transition. Xhaka took to that role too, with more than professional exuberance.

But despite having the courage to perform a function not meant for him, the fact remained that he was not equipped to do it. He gave away penalties and was sent off to the extent that even now, he is refereed differently. Naturally, that drew the ire of the club faithful. The treatment that culminated in Xhaka’s outburst at Crystal Palace in 2019 is well-documented at this point. Ironically, he was stripped of the captaincy and almost forced out of Arsenal because he acted most like a leader.

That is likely why Mikel Arteta quickly set about convincing Xhaka to stay when the Spaniard took the reins at Arsenal. The new manager needed a lieutenant on the field for the massive project that lay ahead. Who better than the former captain with an elite engine, good technical ability, and a propensity for taking responsibility in difficult moments?

Perhaps another reason is that Arteta saw a bit of himself in Xhaka as well. After all, Arteta had also worn the armband for Arsenal. He had played a similar position and faced criticism from supporters for a lack of progressive passing, just as Xhaka had. Yet inside the club, both Arteta and Xhaka were respected as intense professionals. They both took the badge seriously and led by example.

Xhaka, maybe also sensing those similarities and therefore just how much Arteta understood his predicament, placed his trust in the new manager. For the most part, he has been rewarded for doing so. Gabriel Magalhaes, William Saliba, Thomas Partey, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Martin Odegaard, and Gabriel Jesus have been added to the side, increasing both the athleticism and technical quality around Xhaka.

Xhaka was also eventually moved further up the pitch, going from playing as a six next to Partey to functioning as the left eight alongside Odegaard. This change has served a dual purpose. Not only is Xhaka now able to more directly contribute to Arsenal’s offensive output, but now he is less likely to end up in compromising defensive situations. His passing ability is more effectively utilized while he now is responsible for a more manageable portion of the pitch.

Now, with more competent players on the pitch around him and a more tailored role, Xhaka is flourishing. He has a goal and three assists so far this season, already bettering his totals from the last three campaigns. He is third in the Premier League in assists, only behind Kevin de Bruyne and Bukayo Saka. Over the last eight matches, he has cemented himself as one of Arsenal’s best performers.

Although Odegaard is the technical captain in multiple senses of the word, Xhaka remains the true leader of the youngest squad in the league, a squad that will hopefully develop together at Arsenal for years to come. He continues to support his teammates, covering countless kilometers to help win the ball back and provide an option for a pass. In the locker room and on the pitch, Xhaka is vocal, providing both instruction and encouragement. His courage and willingness to help fellow Gunners has not changed. But now he is playing a role that suits him and is not being asked to clean up more messes than he can handle.

Last Sunday away to Brentford, Xhaka produced a performance that exemplifies the peak he has reached. Only 90 seconds in, he was played into penalty area and laid off a ball that Gabriel Martinelli should have converted. 27 minutes later, he got his assist when he lofted a gorgeous cross for Jesus to head in from point-blank range. In the 58th minute, Xhaka could have had another assist. Stumbling as he received a pass from Jesus, Xhaka managed to stab the ball past Brentford’s back line to give Jesus a one-on-one opportunity. Only seconds later, the Swiss midfielder would contribute at the other end, sliding in at the last moment to prevent a Rico Henry cross from finding its man in Arsenal’s penalty box.

The performance earned Xhaka something he admittedly has hoped to experience for a long time. The away crowd sung his name, visibly moving a normally stoic player. It did not matter that he wore the captain’s armband that day, which many fans once wished would never happen again. He felt the love that day, and deservedly so.

Now, Arsenal sit in pole position in the Premier League. The numbers suggest that they are almost on par with Manchester City in terms of performance. Xhaka’s exploits on the pitch are a significant part of that. He is looking every bit one of the finest midfielders in the English top flight. Off the pitch, he is helping mentor a talented collection of young players, serving as an example for them to aspire to.

Early suggestions are that Xhaka intends to do that on a more long-term basis as well. Speaking about Ethan Nwaneri following the 15-year-old’s Arsenal debut, the midfielder revealed that he was working on his coaching badges. He had helped train the U16 team, which is where he had observed Nwaneri’s talent.

It makes sense that Xhaka is looking into management as a potential career after his playing days are over. Arteta’s positional play teachings naturally require his charges to be tactically astute, such is the discipline required to pull it off. It is likely many Arsenal players under the Spaniard will develop enough of an understanding of the game to find coaching enticing.

But on top of that, Xhaka is an organic fit for the leadership requirements of a modern manager. Again, he constantly strives to support the people around him. He is courageous enough to make tough decisions. And as good leaders are, he is an effective communicator, passionate, focused, and unafraid of accountability. With those qualities perhaps one day, maybe even at Arsenal, Xhaka will come across a leader in need to rehabilitate and nudge toward their peak. Just as Arteta once did for him.

Sham, also known as Aaron Shamsdale, writes and podcasts regularly about The Arsenal. He can be followed on Twitter @dopegooner. He can also be summoned by pouring an oat milk latte onto a Monstera plant while a harvest moon is visible.

One Response

  1. Blaq Yute September 26, 2022