On-song Xhaka banishes discord to become a symbol of Arsenal’s progress | Jonathan Liew

A A few months ago, Granit Xhaka was warming up at the Vitality Stadium ahead of Arsenal’s game against Bournemouth when he noticed the traveling fans serenading Oleksandr Zinchenko, one of the club’s summer signings. (“Zin-chen-ko! Always believe in your soul”). Xhaka grew closer to his new colleague. “Alex,” he said. “I’ve been here six years and I don’t have a song. You’ve been here three weeks.

And somehow, you know just how Xhaka would have said it too: with that unique Xhaka-esque mix of joy and pain, insecurity and defiance, the disposable commentary that actually comes of the most tender places. Each player knows his songs. Each player knows when he has none. And while some players may not care, Xhaka has never been very good at concealing how much he cares about things.

Take his extraordinary explosion after the 2-0 defeat at St James’s Park at the end of last season: a scathing reprimand to his teammates delivered not in the privacy of the locker room or on a documentary accessible to all, but live on television, directly in front of the camera. “If anyone isn’t ready for this game, stay home,” he spat in disgust. “If you’re nervous, stay on the bench, don’t come here. We need people to have the balls to come here and play.

For much of his Arsenal career, Xhaka’s unfiltered approach has won him as many opponents as admirers. Passion was never the problem; it was more the lack of self-control, the red cards, the simple mistakes, the time he told fans to “fuck you” after being substituted against Crystal Palace. As Arsenal floundered on the pitch, Xhaka came to embody everything that was holding them back: all mouths and no help, a thermostat permanently set to ‘heat wave’.

Like tempestuous lovers, Xhaka and the fans have been in a relationship for years that seemed doomed. The mutual attraction was there, but also an intense and often deeply personal mutual irritation. So how did we get here, with Xhaka closing in on 200 Premier League appearances, enjoying the most prolific goalscoring season of his career and finally – finally – having his own song?

“It was an absolutely amazing, amazing feeling,” Xhaka said the moment he heard the new track (“we have… Granit Xhaka,” sung to the tune of Glad All Over) for the first time.

It has become fashionable to refer to Xhaka’s revival as a “redemption arc”, as if there were some narrative fatality. In fact, it’s the kind of trajectory that rarely happens in modern football, where tempers are short, judgments are quick and the job market is more fluid than ever.

A Granite Xhaka mural near the Emirates Stadium
Xhaka’s transformation is a reminder of how far Arsenal have come since bad times. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Once you get into a fight with the fans, that’s usually it for you. Perhaps there is a comparison with Joelinton at Newcastle or Moussa Sissoko at Tottenham. But these were simpler transactional examples of a useless player no longer being useless.

In contrast, the Xhaka hatred seemed to come from a different place, and in retrospect it seems oddly, uncomfortably out of proportion. Why, when Xhaka was hardly the only underachieving player at Arsenal, when he embodied so many of the qualities Arsenal lacked in those decadent years of Wenger’s end – leadership, aggression, personality, ability to stay in form in a crisis of injury – has he become such a lightning rod for scorn, criticism, even death threats?

Maybe on some level it was because Xhaka and Arsenal fans had more in common than they would like to admit. Above all, they shared an anger and disgust for the fate of the club, combined with the belief that only they could fix it. As Arsenal fans screamed into the void, Xhaka engaged in the sporting equivalent: flying in tackles, growling and whining, trying to be everywhere at once. Somehow they held a cracked mirror to each other, a self-fueled cycle of needless, indiscriminate aggression that ultimately achieved very little result.

Because it turned out that neither Xhaka nor the fans could fix Arsenal on their own. When Mikel Arteta arrived at the end of 2019, Xhaka’s suitcases were already packed. He had been relieved of his captaincy, Hertha Berlin was interested and he was ready to go. But Arteta had a plan for him. A more strictly defined role in a more structured system. A system that everyone knew and the standards were not negotiable.

Not that things went smoothly. There were unnecessary red cards against Liverpool and Manchester City last seasonversus Burnley the season before. Again, Xhaka nearly left the club in the summer of 2021 and if he had, he wouldn’t have been mourned too much. It’s only in recent months that Xhaka has started to change his mind, a development less related to his form – which has been pretty good for a few years now – and more to that of Arsenal as a team.

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka knocks out Liverpool's Diogo Jota and receives a red card
Xhaka’s unfiltered approach has won him as many opponents as admirers. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

And as with Xhaka-haine, Xhaka-love comes from a subtly different place than the simpler devotion bestowed on, say, Bukayo Saka or William Saliba. While Xhaka once reminded Arsenal of the bad times, he now reminds them of how far they’ve come since the bad times. In a way, he is a living symbol of the club’s journey, one of the last links between Arsenal’s banter era and that of ballers.

Perhaps the closest parallel is with one of his opponents on Sunday. For years, and for many of the same reasons as Xhaka, Liverpool fans struggled to relate to Jordan Henderson, who on some level seemed to reflect the club’s wider flaws. It came with a high price. He was frequently described as brittle, or ordinary, or inconsistent. It took him several managerial cycles to define his role. Like Xhaka, he ultimately thrived not as an enforcer or whirlwind midfielder on his own, but as a simple link in a complex and functional system, an indispensable voice in the dressing room.

The easiest word to say in football is goodbye. Selling, ransacking, unfollowing, blocking: it’s a whole industry geared towards conflict and splitting, elimination and renewal. Ironically, there probably aren’t many more miles in Xhaka’s history. He just turned 30 and in a few seasons you can see him slowly making way for a younger model: Fabio Vieira, or maybe a new recruit. But for now, he represents the power of second chances: of the idea that what’s broken can always be fixed.

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