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The Bravest Man at Arsenal

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In late April, The Players’ Tribune released an interview with Granit Xhaka. Over the course of a written transcript and a video totaling just under 27 minutes, the Swiss midfielder recounts his father’s imprisonment in Yugoslavia, how it informed and impacted his development as a young footballer, the infamous incident at Crystal Palace, and his complicated relationship with club supporters. It is an emotional interview, mostly filmed in black and white, in which the former Arsenal captain displays a level of unvarnished honesty not often seen at the highest levels of professional football.

Of course, as with most things involving Xhaka, there has been criticism. Criticism of the timing of the interview’s publication. Criticism of Xhaka’s temperament and style of play being to blame for the supporters’ attitude toward him. Criticism of his response to that criticism.

But criticism, proper criticism of the player that avoids any form of abuse, has never seemed to bother Xhaka. It certainly has never intimidated him into playing differently. Over the years, Xhaka has repeatedly been on the wrong end of ill-advised tackles, poorly-timed suspensions, and defensive lapses. However, the former captain has always returned and quickly resumed playing his way, undeterred by any negativity faced in the interim. Bravery is perhaps the defining characteristic of Granit Xhaka, both the footballer and the man.

This bravery has always been evident in Xhaka’s game throughout his time at Arsenal. He has consistently been among the leaders in progressive passers during at the club during his time there. Currently, he ranks in the 94th percentile for passes in the final third and in the 89th percentile for passes into the penalty area according to FBref. Before Thomas Partey took the mantle from him, Xhaka earned a reputation for trying speculative shots, even unwise ones, from distance on a regular basis. A quiet hallmark of Xhaka’s game has been to consistently force the issue offensively, using his forward, penetrative passing and willingness to shoot to urge his team forward in pursuit of a win.

Arsenal’s No. 34 has also been unafraid to play in positions he is not particularly suited to. He spent much of his time under Arsène Wenger being deployed as a defensive midfielder, asked to cover a lot of ground in a pacy league he was still adjusting to, despite the manager himself admitting that Xhaka was not particularly gifted at tackling. Under Unai Emery, Xhaka usually operated as a lone six. Both situations placed the Swiss midfielder in jeopardy, heaping a defensive burden on him that he couldn’t cope with. During his first few seasons, Xhaka became synonymous with desperate, yellow-card-earning tackles and gifting penalties to the opposition. And yet, ever the good soldier, he did as he was told.

Xhaka’s willingness to play in new positions has continued under Mikel Arteta. During the Spaniard’s two years and change at the helm, Xhaka has featured as a backup left-back on multiple occasions. Until Thomas Partey’s injury late in the current season, Xhaka had been asked to play another role, as a left-sided eight in a 4-3-3.

However, to even be a part of the Arteta era required immense courage from Xhaka. At the time of Arteta’s appointment, the Swiss footballer was persona non grata at the Emirates Stadium. He faced death threats against his and his family’s lives. A significant portion of the fan base wanted him gone in the upcoming January window. Even Xhaka’s father, a former political prisoner who treated leaving in tough times as a cardinal sin, had told his son it was time to go.

But Arteta wanted him to stay. He told Xhaka his plans, and of how crucial the former captain’s involvement would be. He was warm and genuine, and promised Xhaka he could leave in the summer if he still wanted to. And then, Xhaka made perhaps the bravest decision of his career — he stayed at Arsenal. He put his trust in a new manager at a time when everyone closest to him was beseeching him to move on. Xhaka took a massive leap of faith, and gambled the trajectory of his career on a promise made to him as Arsenal reeled from a horrid first half of their season.

Xhaka was rewarded for his courage. Despite the team finishing in eighth place in the Premier League, Arsenal won the 2020 FA Cup, going on a miraculous run and beating City and Chelsea along the way. They also defeated Liverpool on penalties to claim the Community Shield. The next year, Arteta brought in what Xhaka had needed but not had as long as he had been at the club: a true midfield partner. Thomas Partey’s dynamism, multifaceted ball progression, and ability to cover ground wonderfully paired with Xhaka’s skillset, resulting in one of the most effective midfield duos in the league. Although the team once again finished in eighth, Xhaka established himself as a leader within Arteta’s side and one of its most consistent performers. He was also a big part of an encouraging second half of the season for Arsenal following the Boxing Day win against Chelsea (in which Xhaka himself notched a goal).

The 2021-22 season has seen Xhaka establish himself as the primary figurehead at the club. Now unquestionably the captain without the armband at Arsenal, he has led the youngest squad in the Premier League to an unexpected charge for a Champions League berth. Through tough treks toward the tunnel after losses, through visibly different treatment from the officials, through a knee ligament injury early in the season, Xhaka has endured. He has overcome fear — fear of abuse from a sect of supporters just waiting for a reason, fear of unwarranted punishment by league officials that hold an unfair perception of him, fear of re-injury after bulldozing through recovery in order to get back and help his side — and become perhaps Arteta’s most trusted lieutenant in a team that looks poised to return to prominence.

Given how well things were going when the interview was published, perhaps it was a big risk by Xhaka to tell his story to The Players’ Tribune. But once again, his audacity paid off. The former captain’s willingness to open up and speak out against the treatment he faced, after having been one of Arsenal’s most reliable players for the last couple of seasons, has made him a more sympathetic character for supporters these days. By daringly laying bare his thoughts on his treatment at Arsenal, Xhaka won the hearts of many of the club faithful. A look at the comments on The Players’ Tribune Football’s tweet promoting the interview will tell you as much.

Xhaka completed his redemption arc at home to Manchester United late in April. With the game at 2-1 in Arsenal’s favor and United seemingly mounting an all-out assault on the Gunners’ goal (including a missed penalty by Bruno Fernandes), Mohamed Elneny won the ball just outside the visitors’ penalty area and laid it off to the Swiss midfielder. Xhaka, ever the risk-taker, took a swing and powered the ball past David De Gea for his team’s third score. As he pulled off an expert knee-slide and was embraced by his teammates, the Emirates erupted in unbridled joy. The match was over, but the party was just getting started. United were beaten.

In the days since that match, Xhaka has felt the love much more than before from supporters. He has reportedly been swarmed by fans taking pictures and asking for signatures on multiple occasions. He was voted Arsenal’s Player of the Month for April. On social media, the voices of encouragement and praise for him have been louder than the others.

Xhaka has his bravery to thank for that. He dared to stay at Arsenal when others would have departed without hesitation. He ventured to speak his mind on a massively controversial topic for the whole world to see. He gambled when the United match was far from won and leathered a shot from distance. In doing so, he has earned the warmth and adoration that many others in Arteta’s Arsenal have felt for so long. In a way, Xhaka’s bravery has inspired the fans themselves to be brave — brave enough to love him again.

If you enjoyed this article, follow me on Twitter @dopegooner.

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