The Redemption of Granit Xhaka
Granit Xhaka ripped off his shirt and walked straight down the tunnel. For many, it seemed this would be the last time he would ever wear it. Boos rung around the Emirates and Xhaka had visibly shouted obscenities in return. It felt like a relationship broken beyond repair. Yet less than three months and two head coaches later, Xhaka stood before his fans sharing all the passion and emotions of a classic London derby, and soaking in their applause.
Xhaka was criticised for many things under Unai Emery, but what most didn’t see at the time was how the midfielder was being massively misused, and the Spaniard’s inability to recognise this was directly affecting both Xhaka and Lucas Torreira’s Arsenal careers. Emery chose to play Xhaka as a sole DM, aiming to allow attacks to flow through the base of the midfield. Torreira was often on the bench or used as a box-to-box midfielder, a decision which baffled and enraged Arsenal fans.
Without a ball-winning midfielder by his side, Xhaka was left exposed game after game. His lack of strong mobility and pace meant he was easy to bypass in midfield leaving an easy run at Arsenal’s defence which resulted in mistakes and goals conceded. Xhaka’s weaknesses were being accentuated but Emery was determined not to see his mistake.
Eventually, it became too much. After another poor showing, Xhaka’s name called for substitution was met with sarcastic cheers by the Arsenal fans. His actions next were wrong. Ripping the armband off, he threw it to the floor before Aubameyang and proceeded to stroll off the pitch with Arsenal still chasing the game. Frustration quickly swept over the Emirates, and boos started to fill the ground. This was met by provocative hand gestures by the Arsenal midfielder before he told the fans to ‘f**k off’, and stormed down the tunnel.
Following that night, a loss of captainship, a half-apology and a reintroduction into the team under Freddie Ljungberg took place. Although Xhaka made his actual comeback against Frankfurt in the Europa League, it was massively overshadowed by the high-pressure situation that was surrounding Unai Emery. The Head Coach was dismissed the following morning, and Ljungberg took over on an interim basis.
Xhaka reclaimed his spot in the team under Ljungberg, and the Swede finally gave the fans what they’d been calling for all season. A double pivot of Torreira and Xhaka which finally seemed to add much-needed balance to Arsenal’s midfield. It wasn’t until Mikel Arteta was announced as manager that Xhaka discovered his best form, however. The Spaniard spoke at great length of the importance of Xhaka to the team and managed to convince the Swiss midfielder to stay at the club after numerous links of a January move to Germany emerged.
Arteta kept the double pivot deployed by Ljungberg but set up the team in a way which accentuated Xhaka’s strengths, and masked his weaknesses. When going forward, Xhaka plays on the left of the centre of middle, using his fantastic passing ability to feed passes through to the attackers. When on the defensive, Xhaka can drop deeper, sitting in front of the defence and breaking up play alongside Torreira, another midfielder revitalised under Arteta.
Fast-forward to the 26th minute of an important game at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. David Luiz had been shown a straight red card for a last man challenge on Tammy Abraham and Chelsea had made it 1-0 from the resulting penalty. Xhaka was instructed to drop into centre half in an already less than convincing backline. The error-prone Mustafi stood alongside him, an 18-year-old playing out of position to his left, and a man who had missed almost a year of football to his right.
Against all odds, Xhaka was absolutely superb. He organised, commanded and set an example for the 64 minutes that remained. When Arsenal defended, Xhaka put his body on the line, when they attacked, he urged his teammates forward. Hector Bellerin was wearing the captain’s armband that night, but Xhaka wore an armband of his own.
He showed the Arsenal fans the willingness to fight for the badge, to wear the red and white with pride. And sometimes that is all that they ask. Although his future is still not solidified, something tells me Granit Xhaka may be around for the foreseeable future if he can put in many more performances like that.