Granit Xhaka’s glorious Arsenal swansong: Is this the perfect moment to say goodbye?

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Granit Xhaka Arsenal 2022-23
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The veteran Gunners midfielder has been exceptional this season, but his future in north London is far from clear

Granit Xhaka’s remarkable block to deny Joe Willock what looked like a certain equaliser during Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Newcastle on Sunday was a moment that typified the gutsy performance Mikel Arteta’s side produced at St James’ Park. Xhaka had no right to get back in time to throw his body in front of Willcok’s close-range effort, yet somehow he made up the ground and prevented the hosts levelling things up early in the second half.

The block summed up the way Arsenal approached the game, and also perfectly highlighted just how vital a cog Xhaka is in the well oiled machine that Arteta has created this season. When you watch the incident back, Newcastle’s move begins with Xhaka pressing high up in Arsenal’s final third. The home side beat the press and escape down to the left flank, with Alexander Isak eventually racing into the box and teeing up Willock.

Xhaka could easily have just slowly made his way back, watching the move unfold. But instead he charges towards his own penalty area the whole time. Even then, it looks almost impossible for him to reach Willock in time as the ball breaks for the Newcastle star. But somehow he does, timing his slide perfectly to block the shot and prevent the goal. Not once does he break his stride during his 90-yard sprint back into his own penalty area.

It was a match-winning moment. Had Willock scored at that point in the game, the momentum swing would have been huge. But instead, Arsenal were able to maintain their advantage before eventually going on to add a second goal and seal all three points.

Martin Odegaard and Jorginho may have grabbed the majority of the headlines after the game for their exceptional performances, but the role Xhaka played in Arsenal’s win shouldn’t be underestimated.

  1. A true redemption story
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    A true redemption story

    It was the latest chapter in a remarkable campaign for the Switzerland international. Xhaka’s redemption story at Arsenal has been well documented, but it continues to be one of the stories of the season.

    Whether it goes on to get the fairytale ending Arsenal fans are dreaming off will be determined over the next three games. But even if Arsenal don’t go on to lift the Premier League trophy, that will not make Xhaka’s superb form this season any less impressive.

    A player who was once seen as little more than a chaotic and at times calamitous defensive midfielder, has transformed himself into a box-to-box weapon that has been one of the key driving forces behind the Gunners' unexpected title push.

    Xhaka was challenged in the summer by Arteta to add more to his game. Arsenal’s manager was convinced he had the capability to become more of an attacking force, a player who could slot into the left-sided No.8 role in the fluid 4-3-3 system that the Spaniard wanted to utilise at Arsenal.

  2. Arteta’s warning

    Arteta’s warning

    “We needed to make that change,” Arteta explained earlier in the season. “I think it was a necessity. The squad wanted to evolve to another level and be more dominant and have more resources in the final third to attack and to score more goals.

    “I spoke to him at the end of the season and said, ‘I need to unlock something in your brain because you’re so comfortable and confident playing in this area that you have forgot that actually what is going to win us the game is here and the team now demands somebody here, so unless you unlock that I’m going to have to do something about it’.

    “He took it straight away. He’s a very intelligent player, he came to pre-season fitter than ever, slimmer than ever. And he knew that if we wanted to take the team to a different level we had to change his role. He knew that was coming.”

  3. Summer ultimatum
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    Summer ultimatum

    The message Arteta delivered to Xhaka last summer was also an ultimatum. There was strong interest in the Switzerland captain, from Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and from Roma in Italy. Arteta wanted him to stay, but he was also not going to stand in his way if he wanted to move. 

    It was down to Xhaka. Stay and add more to his game as a player, or move on to pastures new. Xhaka decided to stay. And the results have been exceptional.

    After 35 league games, he has five goals and seven assists to his name. He has also scored twice in the Europa League. Xhaka now looks a completely different player to the one that divided opinion so much during his first six years at Arsenal. A man once despised by large sections of the fanbase is now widely celebrated.

    He probably won’t win the club’s Player of the Year award this season. But the fact that he is even being mentioned in the conversation alongside Odegaard and Bukayo Saka speaks volumes for the way he has performed, and how he is now viewed by supporters.

  4. 'Extremely intelligent'

    'Extremely intelligent'

    “We believed he has those qualities,” Arteta said, when discussing the changes Xhaka has made to his game. “Those qualities were there to be exploited and they were hiding. The team needed those qualities very much.

    “He is extremely intelligent, he has the physical capacity to constantly threaten and occupy those spaces and recover his position quickly enough to have the balance we need. He’s been really consistent, the way he trains, the way he practices, to evolve to the demands we want for the team.”

    Xhaka is a real leader at Arsenal. What he did at St James’ Park on Sunday demonstrated his importance to the team on the pitch. But he is equally as important behind the scenes, which is why Arteta was so keen to keep him around last summer.

  5. Xhaka’s big decision
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    Xhaka’s big decision

    As much as he values Xhaka - both as a player and as a man - Arteta is unlikely to stand in the midfielder’s way, should he decide to pursue an exit at the end of the season. It’s expected that the player would be given the chance to make his own mind up.

    Xhaka has had his best ever campaign at Arsenal. He’s a first-team regular and his popularity has never been higher. It would be understandable if he felt that this was the perfect time to bow out.

    But that would see him wave goodbye to the chance of playing in the Champions League with Arsenal next season. He’s only experienced that once before, in this first season at the club back in 2016-17. He’s been trying ever since to get Arsenal back there, so taking the decision to leave now just as the club is preparing to take its place back amongst Europe’s elite would not be easy.

  6. A chance to leave with his head held high
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    A chance to leave with his head held high

    For Arteta, it would be a blow to lose a player like Xhaka ahead of next season. Even if he does lose his place as a guaranteed starter to a summer addition such as Declan Rice or Mason Mount, he would still be a hugely important member of the squad.

    And with Champions League football back on the agenda, having as strong a squad as possible is going to be absolutely crucial to Arsenal’s chances of success.

    Strengthening his options during the summer is the key priority for Arteta. Ideally he would not want to see his squad weakened. and there’s no doubt that it would be by the loss of such an experienced player who still has so much to offer.

    It’s a difficult situation, one that will all be played out over the coming weeks. But one thing that is for sure is if Xhaka does end up waving goodbye to Arsenal, he will do it with his head held high. You certainly wouldn’t have said that just a short time ago.