Granit Xhaka revival key to Arsenal’s Champions League hopes and Mikel Arteta deserves credit

There was a sense of destiny in Granit Xhaka scoring the decisive goal in the 3-1 win against Manchester United last Saturday at the Emirates, celebrating wildly in front of the North Stand, arms wide open, drinking in the applause.

Xhaka’s goal, and the win which followed, put Arsenal in the driving seat to finish in the Premier League’s top four for the first time since 2015-16. With five games left, they are two points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham (with the rescheduled North London derby set for May 12), and if the Gunners manage to qualify for next season’s Champions League, they will partly have Xhaka’s resurgence under coach Mikel Arteta to thank.

But the dynamic between the 29-year-old midfielder and the Arsenal fans has cycled through every emotion since he arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach for €35m in 2016. Xhaka has always been capable of the spectacular and his leadership qualities saw former manager Unai Emery make him captain in September 2019, yet too many yellow and red cards, as well as a mountain of defensive mistakes, have hindered his Arsenal career. He has become a target for the fans’ frustrations and has not forgotten the criticism aimed at him in the past, something he expressed in a recent essay for The Players Tribune.

“I had barely begun to move when I heard the boos. And it was not just a few guys in the corner: it was a lot of people. I was shocked,” Xhaka wrote about the infamous game on Oct. 28, 2019 against Crystal Palace at the Emirates. He was substituted after Arsenal threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2, then taunted the fans and threw his shirt on the floor in disgust.

“I had never experienced anything like this,” he added. “When I got close to the tunnel, I looked up at the fans sitting there, and this is the part that I will always remember. When I close my eyes now, I can still see their faces. I can see their anger. It’s not that they don’t like me. No, it’s different. This is hate. Pure hate. I am really not exaggerating this. To feel that level of hatred and disrespect, I wouldn’t want it for my worst enemy.”

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After that game, Xhaka looked like he would never play for the club again and was stripped of the captaincy by Emery shortly afterward. Even after Emery was replaced as boss by Arteta two months later, Xhaka was still ready to leave. (“My bags were packed. The passports were out. I was done with Arsenal. Finished.”)

A meeting with Arteta changed that and he took six months to think about staying. Over two years on, Xhaka is still here, fighting for his club. The mistakes and rash decisions can still be frequent — such as his red card against Burnley for grabbing Ashley Westwood by the throat which led to a 1-0 loss in December 2020, or his bizarre backpass against the same team in March 2021 which gifted them a 1-1 draw — but so is the passion.

The most important thing for him against Man United on Saturday was not to show people that they were wrong; what mattered most to him was restoring that communion with the fans.

Xhaka will never have the status of Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira when he eventually leaves Arsenal — he falls far short of their legendary level — and fans will forever debate the midfielder’s qualities (or lack) and his impact (or failure.) But a tactical masterclass at Stamford Bridge in the 4-2 win against Chelsea, followed by his impact against United a week later, showed just how important he is for this Arsenal team and for Arteta.

At Chelsea, it was obvious. It felt like Xhaka was Arteta’s “first assistant coach,” not just relaying messages to teammates, but actually coaching from start to finish on the pitch. Because of Arteta’s game plan — a hybrid back three/back four depending on possession, Bukayo Saka‘s positioning on the flanks, his cover for left-back Nuno Tavares and the work required off the ball by every Arsenal player — the manager needed Xhaka to help implement things. It looked at times like telepathy: one hand signal or look from the bench to Xhaka, sometimes just a word, and the midfielder would then filter instructions to the entire team.

Against United, Xhaka had a different role. When his team was under pressure in the first 20 minutes of the second half, he was the one urging the team to take back control, carrying them through the bad patch and scoring the decisive third goal that cemented the win.

Arteta has a special relationship with players like Xhaka — those who understand the drills, game plans or the subtle in-game tactical switches that can make a difference. Football would be much easier if you had 11 players on the pitch with Xhaka’s football IQ but, if you don’t, then at least one player like him is important.

That intelligence is the main reason why Arteta convinced Xhaka to stay. They speak the same language in the game. Since Arteta’s arrival at the club, the Spaniard has done everything to put his midfielder in the best positions so he could influence this team and repair his relationship with the fans. So far, it’s working this season and Arteta deserves a lot of credit for having brought back Xhaka to this level.

The Arsenal manager’s man-management skills are not talked about enough beyond the results he gets from week to week. He can be ruthless, channelling his inner Pep Guardiola, as we saw with his stance on want-away players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — who was released on a free transfer in January after being stripped of the captaincy — no matter how big they are. But he can also be a nurturing influence. He has invested time in younger players, like Albert Sambi Lokonga and Emile Smith Rowe, to help them work on their positioning.

With Arteta, there’s always an encouraging word for his players and it’s no coincidence that he has improved almost every member of the Arsenal squad: Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale, Kieran Tierney, Gabriel, Saka are all full of confidence now. After the United game, Arteta was quick to hug Mohamed Elneny, who hadn’t played a single minute in the Premier League since Jan. 1 before being restored to the fold for the vital wins over Chelsea and United.

But the biggest change Arteta has made at the club is the mentality. There’s a winning vibe there, now: this team fights until the end, celebrating every goal, every decisive tackle and every point won. A narrow victory away at Wolves will be celebrated like a huge one, because wins trigger other wins. At the London Colney training ground, Arteta moved his office from near reception to a more central position where he can see and hear everything. He added pictures and murals, and also put motivational slogans everywhere like “train to win” or “win for the fans,” which has helped usher in a family feeling and brings everyone together.

Great moments from the club’s history are also plastered all around the ground, and it was important for Arteta to bring back what used to make Arsenal so special. When he was first appointed, he felt that the club had lost some of his identity in recent years. Now, when the players leave the building for training, they walk past a mural celebrating the 49-league game unbeaten run of the “Invincibles” between 2003-04, while underneath there’s a quote from former manager Arsene Wenger: “Here you have the opportunity to get out the greatness that is in each of you.”

This mantra has certainly worked for Xhaka. He has never been so important in his career and his transformation has been the biggest success story of the Arteta era so far. Almost from zero to hero in a matter of minutes, Xhaka became the indispensable force that Wenger believed he could be when he signed him in 2016.

Wenger never really found the key to unlock his potential; Arteta has. And what a story would it be if Xhaka was the one to lead the club back to the Champions League.