Arsenal‘s impressive season has been the story of fresh starts all around the Emirates, none more so than the tale of Granit Xhaka.
Less than 12 months ago, the midfielder looked all but certain for a move away from north London, as Jose Mourinho made him as his top transfer target for Roma last summer. But a year on and Xhaka is undroppable for Mikel Arteta, working to restore both his pedigree as a player and relationship with the Gunners faithful after five tumultuous seasons as an Arsenal player which included him being stripped of the captaincy and booed by his own supporters.
Capped by his thunderous strike to finish off Manchester United in the Gunners’ 3-1 win, the determined 29-year-old received a rapturous reception from his fans. Xhaka’s turnaround comes two-and-a-half years after his infamous outburst to the jeering crowd upon being substituted during a dire draw with Crystal Palace. His performance and goal on Saturday also earned him yet more praise from Arteta, who was desperate to keep him when Mourinho’s Roma got the personal green light to pursue a transfer.
“I was dreaming of that [goal] because he deserves it. If every fan, or individual spent five, ten minutes with Granit – or even two minutes is enough – they will understand the person that he is, the professional that he is and how much he cares about the club,” the Gunners boss told reporters post-match.
“But the history was there, and now as well I think he made a risky move when he opened up completely and he expressed his feelings. But as well, he has done that because now he is prepared. He is feeling that the environment is going to protect him, he feels loved at the club and the response I think was great. So thank you to everyone, to the fans to show that dedication to him, because I know how much that means to him.”
The qualities Arteta speaks off are are enough to convince any manager, never mind one so obsessed with his players’ personalities as Mourinho, who clearly wanted Xhaka to lead his team – also relatively young – in the Italian capital.
In January, it emerged that the Giallorossi were still after the Switzerland captain, with director Tiago Pinto revealing Xhaka’s desire to join the Serie A side following the European Championships last summer. “Everyone knows we were after Xhaka, he wanted to come to Roma,” Pinto explained. “But Arsenal didn’t release him. It’s my regret for this transfer market.”
But Pinto and Mourinho’s focus will have to be shifted elsewhere, as Arteta has made it clear that the Emirates is where “key” player Xhaka’s future lies. “What we need is some balance in everything that we do. Especially with the characters, and personalities that are in that team,” the Spaniard added.
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“With the youth and academy players that we are bringing in, with the signings that we made, with the qualities that we had. So how we can interact, how that restoration can start to build what we want to be on and off the field, and Granit in my opinion was a key role, and he was going to have a key leadership role to achieve what we wanted.”
Recent comments from the man himself back up the belief that his transfer saga is over, as Xhaka told theplayerstribune.com: “Obviously you can never predict the future in football, but I do know a few things.
“After this season, I have two years left of my contract. I still love this club. I believe Mikel is building a great team. And I want to achieve something special here.” Lucky for Xhaka, it seems that Arteta loves him, too.