Sitting in the North Bank, near the corner flag, the tension in the air is palpable. Arsenal lead 2-1 against Man United. The Red Devils look dangerous and despite their penalty miss, it only seems like a matter of time before they equalize. In typical fashion, Arsenal were self-destructing, gifting the ball cheaply on numerous occasions. On another day, this could’ve seen us getting punished.
Finally, came our moment to shine. Bukayo Saka, who will be part of Alex Telles’ nightmares for the coming months gets into a promising situation. He crosses and Telles seems to handle the ball. Nothing is given, unsurprisingly. The ball makes its way out to the edge of the box to Bruno Fernandes. Elneny dispossesses him and plays a simple square ball to Xhaka. The crowd, as they love to do, shouted ‘SHOOOOOOT’ And shoot he did…. XHAKABOOM! A pile driver of a shot gave no chance for David De Gea. And Arsenal led 3-1 with a psychological boost to see the game out.
The Emirates erupted. Xhaka ran towards the North bank, a proper knee slide celebration (take notes, Nuno!), and blew a kiss to the applauding Arsenal faithful. A moment for the ages! Remember, this was a player that mockingly placed his fingers on his ear less than 3 years ago to rile up the jeering Emirates crowd.
Everyone has a differing opinion on Xhaka’s actions in 2019. Some will say that a player who tells the fans to f**k off and throws the captain’s armband on the ground doesn’t deserve to wear the shirt. I view it differently. Xhaka was just being human. The context of his actions on that fateful day was built up over time.
Some of the abuse Xhaka had faced on social media was beyond disgusting, he was insulted by fans in front of his wife and emotions got the better of him on that night. He is open and honest. In a world full of fakers and people desperate for validation, I found it refreshing personally.
Xhaka’s attitude towards this whole captaincy saga can be best understood through his interview with Sky Sports last week. Asked about the captain’s armband, Xhaka stated: “A captain of Arsenal can be without an armband and I am trying to lead the game and the players without the armband.” The symbolism of captaincy doesn’t matter to him, he will lead anyway.
In all my years of supporting Arsenal, there have been few players as polarizing as Xhaka. Fans either rate the player, or they absolutely can’t stand him. There is simply no in-between!
I fall in the former category. Before assessing a player, it is important to understand their qualities – what they can and cannot do. Xhaka has some limitations, there’s no denying that. But look beyond them and what you will see, is a player that can thrive given the right structure and conditions.
One of the criticisms of Xhaka is that ‘he always gets sent off’. Really? Xhaka has 5 red cards in 6 seasons at the club. Let me also add that 2 of them came in his first season, so in the last 5 seasons, he was 3 red cards. Not good, but not that bad either! Vieira had 8 red cards in 9 seasons. Now, I’m not comparing him to Vieira as a player. Patrick is our greatest midfielder of all time. My point is that some players have a tendency to get sent off. The same can be said about Fernandinho at Man City.
This is not to excuse Xhaka for these mistakes – I was critical of him for his unnecessary lunge at Anfield in December during our first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final. He also grabbed the neck of a Burnley player last season and got sent off. Again, unacceptable. These were avoidable and he let the team down on the day. But specific incidents need to be viewed in isolation.
To make matters worse, some of the decisions Xhaka has been on the end of have been ridiculous. The sending off away to Man City was NEVER a red card. Going in with 2 feet wasn’t a great move on his part, but he takes 100% of the ball. Against Aston Villa, he gets a yellow card for his first challenge in the entire game (referee signals to him that he made several challenges) whilst Mings escaped unscathed after his assault on Bukayo. Make it make sense!
During his tenure with Arsenal, Xhaka has had a sizeable portion of the fanbase against him for a lot of the time. The incompetent officials have treated him unfairly. Despite this, EVERY Arsenal manager has backed him. 3 managers with different approaches and philosophies have all put their trust in the player. Why do you think this is? I especially admired Mikel Arteta for the way he brought Xhaka back into the fold at a time when the player was ready to pack his bags and leave the club.
Arteta also understood the player’s role better than his predecessors. Too many times, under both Emery and Wenger, Xhaka was tasked to play at the base of midfield, given the burden of all the defensive responsibilities. Arteta however, has favoured providing Xhaka with more freedom and ensuring that a ball winner is next to him. And unsurprisingly, he’s thrived!
A portion of the fanbase claim that the faith shown in the player is the reason we haven’t finished in the top 4 since his arrival. For me, this is ridiculous logic! Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Xhaka has been a constant in a side that has undergone a massive churn since 2016. The fact Granit’s still here and starting games tells you more about his evident qualities. If anything, this is testament to his consistency.
Arsenal are a better team right now with Xhaka starting, there’s no doubting that. With four games remaining in the season and a race for 4th on the cards, Xhaka holds the key to ball progression from midfield. His midfield partner Mo Elneny is tasked with screening the defence and retaining possession. Granit is a leader that our young core looks up to and honestly, I’m so, so glad we didn’t cave into AS Roma’s £15m bid and sell him. What a steal that would have been by Jose!
Xhaka was, is and will be an important player for this football club. He was a key player in both our FA Cup triumphs and typically steps up against quality opposition. Having said that, there is a good chance that Arteta will sign a more natural #8 to play a box to box role. This could mean lesser game time for Xhaka, which is cool. I’m not opposed to us going in a different direction. However, Xhaka can still be a valuable member of our squad.
The fact that so many Arsenal fans want to sell him at all costs is laughable to me. His leadership, progressive passing and tactical intelligence cannot be understated. Seeing him win our April player of the month put a big smile on my face.
To conclude, I would just like to say that Granit Xhaka is an inspiration. It is possible to bounce back from the pits of despair and redeem yourself by believing in yourself and working hard by not listening to the outside noise. His relationship with the fans truly has come full circle. A beautiful story.