Granit Xhaka prepares to bring rollercoaster five years at Arsenal to a close

The hyperbole was plentiful after Granit Xhaka’s performance for Switzerland in their Euro 2020 last 16 triumph over France.

Social media was awash with declarations of his brilliance – yes, he was very, very good – while one headline announced that “redemption” had been achieved by the Swiss skipper; redemption from what exactly was unknown.

But Xhaka’s display, gamely dragging Vladimir Petkovic’s side by their bootlaces towards a quarter-final showdown with Spain – even though he is suspended – embodied the spirit of his side.

Throughout, he tried to lead and seeking for others to follow and refusing to back down.

“He was exceptional, all his choices were good,” Arsene Wenger told beIN Sports. “He was the one who rallied the troops.”

Xhaka had indeed given a rousing team talk both at the end of normal time and before the penalty shootout. Whereas Les Bleus drifted in twos and threes before the shootout, the Swiss were gathered in a huddle, with Xhaka at the heart of things, motivating those around him with a fist-pumping speech.

Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka celebrates after the match

In many respects, leading and rousing teammates is what he has tried to do at Arsenal since arriving in 2016, joining from Borussia Monchengladbach in a deal worth in the region of £34milion.

The intervening five years have unquestionably been a rollercoaster ride; his first Premier League game, a 4-3 home defeat to Liverpool in the opening game of the 2016-17 season in which he arrived as a 67th minute substitute and, typically, was booked, certainly set the tone for what was to come.

Ahead of all the ups and downs, Arsenal watching him a staggering 30 times during his final season in Germany – with Xhaka having initially been contacted by Wenger over a potential switch 12 months previously.

The Frenchman had initially been enthused by ex-Switzerland manager Ottmar Hitzfeld’s assertion that Xhaka, who was born to Kosovo-Albanian parents and was fast-tracked into the senior Swiss team shortly after his 18th birthday, was “an absolute top player, capable of playing for any top team in the world”; Hitzfeld had also named him “young Schweinsteiger”, eschewing the “young Einstein” nickname – due to Xhaka’s love of science – that had stuck since his youth.

Arsenal had wanted Xhaka and Xhaka had wanted Arsenal. “England is my dream. I do not hide it. Whether I’ll be happy there, only the good Lord knows.”

In five seasons, 220 appearances and 13 goals have followed. He has won two FA Cups, two Community Shields, reached the Europa League and EFL Cup finals.

He has played at least 40 games each season, has been trusted by three different managers, has been handed the captaincy and lost it, held the fans’ trust, lost it, and won it back.

It’s true to say that, amid some antipathy and frustration from supporters there have been times where it’s appeared he would rather be anywhere other than North London.

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal reacts to the crowd after being substituted vs Crystal Palace in 2019
Granit Xhaka of Arsenal reacts to the crowd after being substituted vs Crystal Palace in 2019

There have also been times when his future has appeared untenable, not least after his 2019 substitution against Crystal Palace, when he told fans to “f*** off” amid a tirade of boos.

“Everyone knows what happened with me and the fans. It was not a nice time,” he told BT Sport back in August.

“Sometimes this happens in life, maybe sometimes you need this to be back in reality and say ‘listen, I have to work more’.

“I was very, very close to leaving the club. Until this time, I had very great moments with the football club but after that, I was of course a bit down.

“But then Mikel came, I had a very good meeting with him. It was never in my mind to leave the club. Of course, you think about it but Mikel was the guy, he turned it around and gave me a second chance.”

Xhaka had wanted to leave in January 2020, with Hertha Berlin pushing for his signature. Unai Emery had stood him down as skipper and had the Spaniard still been in charge, he almost certainly would have departed.

Instead, he remained under Mikel Arteta, who actively persuaded and cajoled him into staying, before playing a key role in their FA Cup triumph. The captaincy was his no more, having been handed to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he has remained a dressing room leader, someone who’s opinion is regularly sought by the staff and his teammates.

It’s fair to say that he has suffered from inconsistency during his time at the club, and there have been some scarcely believable errors. Certainly he has been booked too often and he has never been able to curb his tendency to make rash challenges.

But he has never shirked responsibility, in good times and bad. He always gives his all whether at the heart of midfield or when asked to play at left-back. Stubborn and resolute, he never hides, always wanting the ball; you can’t question his character in that respect.

Now, his future looks set to be elsewhere.

How will history remember Granit Xhaka at Arsenal?
How will history remember Granit Xhaka at Arsenal?

His partnership with Thomas Partey didn’t quite hit the heights expected last term and Jose Mourinho is pushing to take the 28-year-old to Roma in a £17million deal. The Portuguese wants to add a leader to the Giallorossi midfield. Xhaka fits the bill.

Xhaka has offered little at the Euros on the subject, other than to say, when asked if he’d be answering questions from the press in Italian in future: “Not yet… it is always interesting to learn a new language.

“Let’s see, everyone knows what Roma represent.

“Now I am an Arsenal player, I will speak after the tournament.”

However, he is seemingly ready for a new challenge and to bring the curtain down on half a decade in North London. For better and worse, it’s been quite the ride.

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