The reemergence of Granit Xhaka over the past two months has been nothing short of sensational. The Swiss international has always divided opinion. Since his arrival in 2016, many fans have been quick to criticise his displays. Despite this, Granit has always retained the backing of his relevant manager. Not only did Arsène Wenger sign him, he also started him almost every week during his first two seasons in English football. Once Emery arrived, he renewed his contract almost immediately and continued to include him in the XI every week. This faith was emphasised when Xhaka was awarded the club captaincy following Laurent Koscielny’s exit.
This season, Unai persisted with Xhaka during a spell of sub-par displays while Lucas Torreira was used sparingly. Our results were underwhelming and many fans couldn’t understand the decision. In a home game against Crystal Palace, Xhaka was withdrawn and many fans responded by jeering and booing. We all know how the Swiss responded, and it reflected badly on all involved, regardless of their intentions. Following this incident, Granit was not given a single minute of Premier League action under Unai Emery and he was stripped of the captaincy. He featured in one Europa League game, but that was it as far as involvement goes.
A change of management saw Xhaka reintroduced into the XI under interim-head coach Freddie Ljungberg. Performances slowly but surely improved, but reports claimed that a move to Germany seemed like a formality in the upcoming January transfer window. The move seemed inevitable to the extent that his brother even addressed the rumours publicly and seemed to feel like an agreement could certainly be reached between all parties.
Despite this speculation, Mikel Arteta included Xhaka in his first line-up against Bournemouth on Boxing Day. Our ex-captain was very impressive alongside Lucas Torreira in midfield and was arguably man of the match. In our following game, Xhaka didn’t even make the match-day squad due to what the club described as illness. Regardless of the club’s explanation of the situation, fans and media publications alike were left unconvinced and it appeared that his exit was sealed, with the transfer window only days away. Arteta was asked about the situation post-game and simply said that Xhaka is a player who he rates extremely highly. He was very honest and acknowledged the fact that the midfielder didn’t feel like the club was the right place for him after all of the abuse that he had received.
For me, the turning point was our fixture against Manchester United on New Year’s Day. Similarly to the game against Bournemouth, Xhaka partnered Torreira in midfield and was exceptional. On this occasion, our dominance was reflected by the scoreline. The atmosphere at the game was fantastic, and the reactions of both players and staff at full time was exceptional. For the first time in a long time, we looked like a team. Post-game, Arteta re-emphasized his admiration of Xhaka’s ability and the fact that he wants him to stay. He went on to claim that Granit had given him assurances that he planned on staying.
Since this incident, Xhaka’s performances have not dipped in the slightest. His role has been altered slightly to what was expected of him under both Wenger and Emery. When we are in possession, he often fills in as a left-sided centre half and allows either Sead Kolašinac or Bukayo Saka more freedom to add to our attack without leaving us susceptible to counter attacks on the turnover. Not only has this allowed those mentioned to thrive as their strengths lie further forward, it has also allowed Granit to dictate games more effectively. Arteta’s desire to play out from the back suits Xhaka’s game and he has featured for every single minute of the Spaniard’s tenure so far - apart from the home game against Chelsea, which was seemingly due to illness.
He has also had to adapt to other positions during this period. When we went down to ten men at Stamford Bridge after the dismissal of David Luiz, he had to play the remainder of the game in central defence. This was no easy task for a natural midfielder, particularly when you account for the one-man deficit. Nonetheless, he was faultless during the remainder of the game. Similarly, he had to readjust his role after yet another injury against Burnley. On this occasion, he filled in at left back for the second half at Turf Moor. He wasn’t quite as impressive as he had proven to be at Stamford Bridge, but he still coped well.
Xhaka deserves immense credit for his displays, but I have also been incredibly impressed by how well Mikel Arteta handled the situation as a whole. The feud was entirely new at Arsenal and could have proven problematic for even the most experienced of coaches. One wrong word could have offended fans or the want-away in equal measure. Thankfully, the new man managed to find a compromise which worked for all involved and has - seemingly - resolved the issue.
This situation has been eye-opening for many fans, myself included. Regardless of what you think about Granit Xhaka or his footballing ability, sending personal abuse to both him and his family is simply unacceptable. I am not defending his reaction, but fans do not have the right to send personal threats to a player just because they earn a lucrative wage. Constructive criticism is fine, in fact, it is arguably beneficial. However, not only is personal abuse unacceptable, it also reflects badly on the club as a whole. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing, we simply have different views of how to get there.
Whether you think Xhaka should have remained captain, been sold as soon as possible or anything in between, sending abuse to his family members will not help anyone. When players are underperforming, they need our support more than ever. Confidence plays a huge part in football and, at the end of the day, the players are all human. They make mistakes. Xhaka will be fully aware if he has a bad game. I’m not claiming that we shouldn’t have the right to publicly acknowledge this, but there is certainly a correct way to go about it, in my opinion. I think we can all agree that sending abuse to his month-old daughter does not fall into that category.
Shkodran Mustafi also helped us to realise that the players can be incredibly affected by events on social media. The German defender has come under much scrutiny over the past three years, particularly towards the latter stages of the 2018/19 season. Across all of his social media platforms, the replies were full of irate fans undermining his performances and claiming that he doesn’t deserve to represent the club, to put it mildly. He eventually had to disable his Instagram comments section and his wife was forced to privatise her account to put an end to similar remarks.
To the surprise of myself and many others, Mustafi addressed these issues during the early weeks of this season in a heartfelt video posted to Arsenal’s Twitter and YouTube channel. He also took part in a similar interview with an external media publication. This was eye-opening insight into the extent that our flippant comments on social media can have on people, regardless of their profession or salary. Thankfully, almost all fans responded very well to the video and admired his courage and honesty if nothing else. He has made mistakes along the way, most notably at Stamford Bridge and Anfield in the League Cup. After these games, he acknowledged the mistakes on social media and apologised. In the past, his posts would have been bombarded with abuse, but nowadays the vast majority of fans reply with both praise and encouragement. It is no coincidence that his performances have improved dramatically as a result.
I sincerely hope that a similar conclusion can be reached regarding the Granit Xhaka situation. As of right now, everything seems to be fine, but that is largely down to the fact that he is performing well. If his form dips, it will be interesting to see how fans respond. Hopefully we have collectively learned our lesson and fans can move on from any mistakes that he may have made in the past. To quote Granit Xhaka himself: let’s more forward positively together.