Granit Xhaka, We Had Granit Xhaka

Every hero has their origin story. And most tales of heroes follow a similar path. Our protagonist first emerges as a promising yet unpolished savant. They show skill and leadership beyond their years. Their trajectory is only upward, earning accolades, receiving positions of trust and critical responsibilities, and making a name for themselves.

And then, trouble strikes. This trouble can take many forms. However, it is often brought about by the hero themselves, a self-inflicted wound that highlights their key shortcomings. In any case, our hero finds themselves down on their luck, scandalized, an outcast.

But soon enough, a wise figure emerges just as the protagonist is at their lowest point. They take the maligned hero under their wing and serve as a mentor. They show them how to avoid their flaws getting the best of them, how to realize the full potential of the gifts they have, how to overcome the quagmire they’ve fallen into. With that guidance, the hero flourishes.

So goes the tale of Granit Xhaka, for the most part. The Swiss midfielder began his career at his hometown club, FC Basel. He had been born there to an Albanian family that had moved from Podujevo in what is now Kosovo a few years prior to Xhaka’s birth. With some help from Amnesty International, they had fled Yugoslavia after Xhaka’s father Ragip was imprisoned and tortured for six months for demonstrating. Even now, Xhaka’s father refuses to reveal to Granit the full details of his ordeal as a prisoner.

That strength and resilience made its way down the family tree to Granit. He made his debut for Basel’s senior side at the age of 18, scoring a goal late in the match. At the end of Xhaka’s first season as a full-fledged first-teamer, Basel won the Super League Championship. During the summer, he made his debut for the Swiss national team against England. The following season he once again won the league title and made it a double with the Swiss Cup.

Growing up, Xhaka and his family faced discrimination in Switzerland. In 2012, he confirmed as much to Schweiz am Sonntag, a Swiss weekly newspaper, stating, “I never used to be taken seriously as a Swiss person. I often heard people saying things like “always these shit Albanians” but I never let it get to me because I knew it was a cliché.” Xhaka’s heritage made him less than in the eyes of so many Swiss citizens. And yet, he represented the nation as a teenager. Thorsten Fink, who managed Basel until 2011, claimed that “Xherdan Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland… after Granit Xhaka.” Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland’s national team manager until 2014, called Xhaka a “young Schweinsteiger”. As much as the Swiss may have felt they could do so with Xhaka’s belonging in the country, his talent could not be denied.

Following the 2011/12 season, Xhaka completed a move to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Still a teenager, he quickly became a regular under Lucien Favre, featuring 62 times over the next two seasons. However, Favre departed in 2015, and Mönchengladbach found themselves in dire straits. After losing the first five matches of the season, the team sat dead last in the Bundesliga. With the club’s two primary captains Martin Stranzl and Tony Jantschke out injured, interim manager Andre Schubert chose 22-year-old Xhaka over the likes of Yann Sommer to wear the armband.

At first, it looked like Schubert’s massive gamble would fail. Xhaka, always having had a propensity for ill-advised challenges and dissent against the officials, earned three red cards by the conclusion of his 17th league game of the season. However, slowly but surely, the new captain righted the ship. His hot head cooled, and he only earned one more yellow card for the rest of the season. Mönchengladbach’s form improved, and they finished the campaign fourth in the Bundesliga.

For his valiant efforts and his meteoric rise, Xhaka earned a move to Arsenal. A single call from Arsene Wenger had hooked him, just as it had so many before him. Costing £35 million, the midfielder was at the time the Gunners’ third-most expensive signing ever behind Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Xhaka had done it. He had made it to the pinnacle of the game, and before his 24th birthday.

However, the beginning of Xhaka’s time in north London was tumultuous. The Swiss man joined a midfield group that featured Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, and Jack Wilshere, some of the best attacking-minded midfielders to ever grace the club. Because of this, and perhaps also because Xhaka was reportedly whom Arsenal turned to when agent fees prevented them from signing N’Golo Kante from Leicester, Wenger deployed Xhaka as more of a regista despite describing him as a box-to-box midfielder upon his arrival. In 81 of his first 92 matches at the club, Xhaka played at the base of midfield.

The assignment was unkind to the new recruit, to say the least. Xhaka, never fast enough to cover large swathes of the pitch, was often left exposed by the more attacking midfielders venturing further up the pitch. Behind him, the likes of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista offered little support. As a result, Xhaka was forced into awkward situations defending in transition and his longstanding tendency to get in disciplinary trouble only exacerbated the issue. He ended his first season at the club with 12 yellow cards and two straight reds. Arsenal finished fifth in the league, missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in over twenty years. The Gunners softened the blow by winning the FA Cup, but the toxicity around the club grew more and more inescapable.

Matters didn’t improve the following season. Xhaka played even more games at the base of midfield, again unassisted and exposed on the counter. Arsenal were undisciplined defensively, conceding silly goals, making ridiculous errors, and suffering shock defeats. Xhaka himself finished with another 12 yellow cards, although he did not see red that season. But the Arsenal backslide continued; they finished sixth, and the mounting pressure finally saw the club announce Wenger’s time as manager would end with the season.

It was the toughest of breaks for Xhaka. Years of small transfer budgets, poor decision-making at the highest levels of the club, and a stubborn refusal to change with the times finally told. Arsenal’s decline was in full swing. But Xhaka’s arrival had unfortunately coincided with that decline. In the eyes of many, many supporters, the Swiss midfielder was associated with their club’s downturn.

Unai Emery replaced Wenger in short order. The Spaniard brought with him new ideas, but aside from featuring occasionally as an emergency left-back or center-back, Xhaka continued playing in defensive midfield, typically alongside Matteo Guendouzi or Lucas Torreira, neither of whom really offered much alleviation from Arsenal’s openness defensively (they conceded 48 goals alone in the Premier League in the 2018/19 season), and collected another 13 yellow cards during the campaign. A 22-game unbeaten run masked what a fifth-placed finish in the league and a trouncing by Chelsea in the Europa League final eventually betrayed: Arsenal had not improved.

To start the following season, Laurent Koscielny departed somewhat acrimoniously, as several Arsenal captains before him had. Following his exit, Emery appointed Xhaka the new captain. His ascension to that role was a perfect microcosm of his status at Arsenal; he was voted to the post by his teammates and highly respected within the club, but just a few days prior had been jeered by fans at home to Aston Villa.

Unfortunately, no. 34’s claim to the armband didn’t last long. Just a month after becoming captain, Xhaka started for the Gunners away to Crystal Palace. Despite going up 2-0 in the first ten minutes, Arsenal were level with Palace after an hour of play. Bukayo Saka replaced Xhaka. As the captain came off the pitch, he was again booed and taunted, loudly and aggressively.

Xhaka had been subjected to constant mockery and insults during his time at Arsenal.

Xhaka had a reputation as a hotheaded liability following him around online and in the media.

Xhaka had promises of violence against him, death threats against his wife, and wishes of harm toward his daughter in his inbox.

Xhaka had enough.

Never one to tolerate disrespect and always one to let his feelings be known, Xhaka retaliated. He cupped his hand to his ear, sarcastically urged his detractors to keep going, and even shouted “f*ck off” a couple times. He stormed off the pitch and headed directly down the tunnel. As he did so, he pulled off his shirt and threw it aside, an unforgiveable sin. For all the world to see, he had issued a declaration that he was done with Arsenal.

Xhaka spent the next few matches in exile. Before he had simply been ridiculed and branded a problem player, the butt of the joke. Now he was truly an outcast. Emery didn’t quite back him up publicly. Arsenal stripped him of the captaincy and awarded it to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His father, tortured for demonstrating as a young man, always telling him not to give up even in the most difficult moments of us career, said it was time to go. This was rock bottom.

Emery was sacked after plunging Arsenal into their worst run of form in 27 years. Freddie Ljungberg took over as interim manager. Xhaka, still planning on departing at the first possible opportunity, returned to action for Arsenal under the Swede’s supervision. Late in December of 2019, Mikel Arteta was appointed head coach of the club.

In Xhaka’s own words, the “bags were packed” and “the passports were out.” In his first meeting, Xhaka informed Arteta, the man he had effectively arrived to replace in the Arsenal squad, that he wished to leave. Arteta understood, but a second chat was scheduled. His additional meeting with the new gaffer was only so he could say goodbye, “and then we would board the plane.”

But somehow, Arteta convinced Xhaka to give him six months. Perhaps it was the new boss’ warmth and honesty toward the former captain. Perhaps it was the clear and considered plan that Arteta laid out. Perhaps it was the fact that Arteta envisioned Xhaka as a signficant part of those plans. Regardless, at the conclusion of the meeting, the Swiss midfielder had decided: he was staying.

He communicated that message to his family, who were shocked at the turnaround. Xhaka informed them they could leave without him and he would go it alone if need be. He realized that to leave would be to acquiesce to the people who booed him, the people who had derided him, the people who had sent him threats against him and his loved ones. Xhaka had never been the kind of person. He would not let them win.

From the outset, Arteta did more to protect Xhaka than previous Arsenal managers had. The team was set up more compactly, typically either in a 3-4-3 or a 4-2-3-1. The Swiss man never had to cover all of midfield on his own. Xhaka still picked up eight yellow cards after Arteta took charge and Arsenal finished eighth. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed matches for a significant period of time and prevented fans from attending when the season restarted. But things felt like they were finally looking up. Exactly seven months after the opening of the January window in which Xhaka had wanted to leave, he and Arsenal defeated Chelsea to win the FA Cup.

The next two seasons presented many hardships. Almost all of the 2020/21 season was played without fans in the stands. Arsenal’s players and staff had to take a pay cut to combat the economic effects of the pandemic. The Gunners found themselves almost in a relegation battle and if not for an improbable Boxing Day win against Chelsea, the Arteta project may have been over before it truly began. Arsenal finished eighth again in 2021. Shortly after the start of the 2021/22 season, Xhaka suffered an MCL injury that kept him out for multiple months. Aubameyang suffered a captaincy scandal of his own that Xhaka and the rest of the club had to navigate as Amazon Prime Video’s cameras rolled. The team fumbled fourth place and watched as Spurs snatched a Champions League berth from them in the closing stages of that season. Following that season, Arteta informed Xhaka that he would need to adapt to an advanced position.

But still Xhaka stayed. Despite no longer being the skipper, he led without an armband. When Arsenal announced 55 redundancies after the players’ and staff’s pay cuts, he reportedly led the opposition to that decision. He helped provide guidance and support for younger players like Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, and Gabriel Martinelli. He called out players who were late or let their egos get too inflated. He organized team meals and nights out. The midfielder was the manager’s most trusted lieutenant, the original disciple of Mikel Arteta.

In that time, Arteta had done much to support his biggest backer in the team. The Spaniard had surrounded Xhaka with dynamic, technically astute players like Ødegaard, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, and Ben White. In Aaron Ramsdale, Arteta had a goalkeeper who was good on the ball and wouldn’t put Xhaka in awkward positions when playing out from the back.

Fans eventually took notice of Xhaka’s dedication and improvement under Arteta, especially in the 2021/22 season. Instead of zeroing in on his flaws – his hotheadedness, his lack of pace over short distances, his occasional bluntness – fans allowed their focus to shift to his better traits: his lovely passing ability, endurance, consistent availability, leadership skills, and, of course, the occasional long-range banger he could unleash on an opposition goal. Slowly but surely, his reputation among supports started to mirror the high regard he was held in internally.

Xhaka formally completed his redemption arc on April 23, 2022. Arsenal hosted Manchester United at the Emirates that day. After going 2-0 up, the Gunners allowed the visitors to grab a goal back. Only the post denied Bruno Fernandes from leveling the game via a penalty kick. The tie was very much not won. But in the 70th minute, Xhaka picked up the ball outside United’s box and smashed it past David De Gea to make it 3-1. As the back of the net bulged, the Emirates Stadium erupted in a collective roar of jubilation. Ecstatic, Xhaka sprinted and knee-slid over to the stands, arms open wide to receive the love he had so sorely lacked during his first several years at the club. He had won the match and the hearts of those who once so painfully despised him.

Ahead of this past season, Arsenal signed Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City. The latter inverted and occupied the zone at the base of midfield Xhaka had spent the last six years playing in, while the former worked tirelessly to combine and create space for the Swiss player. As a result of those two acquisitions, Arteta moved Xhaka further up the pitch to play as a left eight opposite Ødegaard. Not only did this get Xhaka away from the danger of having to defend in transition, but it also gave him a platform for him to play as more of the box-to-box midfielder he always was.

The result of these tweaks were Xhaka truly thriving at Arsenal. He had been one of the club’s most reliable performers for over a year at this point, and the left eight position further solidified that. Entering the 2022/23 season, with Xhaka back in Gooners’ good graces, he became vice-captain at the club while Martin Ødegaard received the armband and led by example on the pitch. But when circumstance resulted in the Swiss midfielder wearing the armband to finish out Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Brentford, any reservations he had were quelled by the away fans chanting his name. It was an experience he was not used to in London, and even he admitted it was an emotional moment for him.

Against all odds, Arsenal mounted its most convincing title challenge in years. Exactly halfway through the season, the Gunners had established a 100-point pace in the league. They won matches left and right, playing effective, attractive football as the team Arteta had assembled clicked in dominant fashion.

Unfortunately, injuries at the back derailed Arsenal’s season and City swooped in to claim their fifth Premier League trophy in the last six seasons. But for the first time in Xhaka’s seven seasons at the club, Arsenal qualified for the Champions League. To that end, Xhaka’s involvement as part of the “front five” netted him nine goals and seven assists that season, making up almost a third of his total goal contributions for the club. He had finally helped the club return to Europe’s biggest competition. It was the special achievement he had aimed to accomplish with Arteta.

But as is often the case in tales of heroes, Xhaka’s time to ride off into the sunset arrived almost two months ago. In Arsenal’s last match of the season, a home game against Wolves, Xhaka scored twice while wearing a new kit adorned with gold stripes as the Gunners stormed to a 5-0 victory. His lap of honor afterward, which he did mostly alone, carried a sense of finality to it. After years of vitriol and inadequate support, he had overcome the odds and helped restore Arsenal to its status as one of the strongest clubs in football.

Xhaka officially departed last week to Bayer Leverkusen. When almost anyone else would have scurried away a villain after that fateful night at Crystal Palace, he stayed. He refused to give up, to be beaten. Now he leaves Arsenal, perhaps not as a club legend, but certainly as a hero.

Kai Havertz joined from Chelsea and traveled to Germany with the team for the beginning of preseason. Declan Rice’s arrival from West Ham is imminent at the time of writing. The former is likely to take Xhaka’s place on the pitch while the latter has the tools to eventually fill the void he leaves off it. Sure, Xhaka could have stayed and continued mentoring the younger members of the squad while playing more of a supporting cast role. But Xhaka, like most heroes, preferred to go where he was needed.

So he returned to Germany, not only to be closer to his wife’s family, but also to join a team that will make him a key figure and to learn under another innovative young manager – Xabi Alonso, coincidentally a dear friend of Arteta’s. Before leaving Arsenal, Xhaka started working on earning his coaching badges. He certainly has the leadership and intelligence to become a manager in the future. Perhaps, just as was the case with Arteta, we will see Xhaka back at Arsenal one day, in a different capacity.

It’s often the case in football that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Players depart and can’t be replaced. Managers are sacked and teams regress. Even front office personnel exit and suddenly a club’s recruitment takes a nosedive. But Xhaka was the kind of person to make sure we knew what we had before he was gone.

We had a leader, unafraid of the difficult conversations and always willing to back his teammates and manager to the hilt.

We had a fighter, who never gave up even when things got tough, even when those he was fighting for turned against him.

We had one of the best midfielders in the world, a duel-winner and second ball-hoovering machine, a creative and adaptable playmaker capable of effecting positive change in both boxes.

We had Granit Xhaka.

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One Response

  1. Emma Smart July 10, 2023