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Brought back from the brink: Granit Xhaka’s miraculous transformation from outcast to linchpin

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Since signing for Arsenal in 2016, Granit Xhaka has been a polarising figure for Arsenal fans. From literally picking his nose as Watford scored a goal back in 2017, to his ability to score goals at long range, to being praised for recent performances, Xhaka is an interesting and perhaps misunderstood player.

Some Arsenal supporters hate him, some love him and some love him but want him to be sold for reasons such as his immobility and his tendency to occasionally lose concentration and make crucial mistakes.

Don’t just take my word for it – earlier this season former Manchester United and Liverpool midfielder Paul Ince commented, ‘’I don’t understand Granit Xhaka. I don’t understand why he plays every week. ‘I don’t see what he brings to Arsenal. Yes, he’ll shoot from 25 yards, and the odd one might go in, but the rest will probably go in row Z’’.

Even Xhaka’s status as Arsenal captain was a debatable topic around the club. Former Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit in October of 2019 had some harsh words to say, ‘’Can anyone tell me what is Xhaka’s best quality? I don’t know why he has been made captain. The leadership is absent’’.

Everything fell apart for Xhaka in an infamous home match against Crystal Palace. Drawing at home, Xhaka was subbed off at the 61st minute and was soon a key figure in some truly disgraceful scenes. Subbed off, the Arsenal faithful were not at all happy with how Xhaka responded.

Slowly walking off the pitch, the Arsenal supporters took their frustrations out on Xhaka, cheering when his substitution was announced. As the cheers turned into jeers, Granit Xhaka started to give it back to the fans telling them to ‘’F**k off’’.

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After these disgraceful scenes, taking off his Arsenal shirt and heading straight towards the tunnel, Xhaka was heavily criticised.

Granit Xhaka shortly came out apologising for his role in the incident, and stated in a club official Tweet, how a barrage of abuse both at matches and online led to him reaching boiling point.

”We will break your legs, ”Kill your Wife” and ”We wish that your daughter gets cancer” – just some of the online abuse he received. Along with having being stripped of the captaincy, Xhaka’s time at the club looked like it was nearing to and end.

Xhaka was never helped out by former manager Unai Emery. After the previous campaign’s five captains saga, despite three of the captains (Aaron Ramsey, Koscielny and Petr Čech) leaving the club, rather than clearly deciding whether Xhaka would be captain, Emery let the players decide instead by casting a vote.

Emery’s indecisiveness did Xhaka no favours, whatsoever. The indecisiveness of the manager actually hurt Xhaka, people were questioning whether he should be captain or not and weren’t happy with Emery leaving it up to the squad to decide, rather than making a commanding decision for himself.

After the Crystal Palace incident, Emery’s indecisiveness extended itself to removing the captaincy from Xhaka. Rather than immediately stripping Xhaka of captaincy, Emery let the bad situation drag on for around a month before making the decision to strip Xhaka and award Aubameyang with the captain’s armband. How Emery managed the whole captain situation actually lead to more hate and abuse being directed towards Xhaka!

This abuse both online and at matches, would make it very difficult for Xhaka to work his way back into the team and be re-accepted by fans, how easy would it have been for him to have got up and left in January? There was of course talk of him leaving to Hertha Berlin, but Mikel Arteta managed to convince the player to stay.

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Clearly hurt and seriously considering leaving the club, once Arteta came in Xhaka was assured how he was key to Arteta’s plans. “I told him how much I like him and what I expect from him,” Arteta said. “How important he is for the team. I am here to help him, I want him to feel that we are right behind him. Not just myself but the whole club. If we can get the people in the right way as well, the fans with him, I think it will be helpful for the team, which is where it matters.”

As Arteta has turned the club around in a positive direction, Xhaka who had to be convinced by Arteta at first, ”I had to convince him he had a future, he had a place here and he could enjoy his career and his family could be happy here,” has been influential in the team’s turnaround.

How Xhaka has reacted to these difficulties, speaks volumes about him as a person. Even though he is not the official captain, Xhaka is a leader on the pitch and possesses many leadership qualities. While not being the official captain he is a captain on the pitch, and as such has been praised for putting in true captain’s performances.

I really do feel Xhaka deserves massive praise for how he has come back, it’s not easy to come back from such a moment when a large section of fans jeer you like that. The mental toll of the Crystal Palace incident, abuse on social media and even abuse in matches should not be underestimated.

Such abuse can be damaging to players and really hurt them. Lesser men would have snapped or been unable to come back from such a mentally difficult situation.

In doing so Xhaka deserves so much credit.

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