Euro 2020 - Opinion: This is the Granit Xhaka we knew was there, but it is still right time to leave Arsenal
After Granit Xhaka’s heroic performance against France, and ahead of the quarter-final with Spain, Pete Sharland looks at how the Arsenal midfielder has evolved over the years and just how good he has been for his country this summer. However despite the uptick in performance in the last few weeks it still feels like it is the right time to leave the North London club.
'I knew we could write history' - Xhaka after Swiss penalty win
At least he gave them something to smile about towards the end.
We probably won’t see Granit Xhaka in an Arsenal shirt again. In fact if it wasn’t for his own heroics then we probably would already know Xhaka’s new club.
As it is, his immediate focus will be the Euro 2020 quarter-final with Spain on Friday. Switzerland have reached the last eight thanks in part to a magnificent midfield performance from Xhaka. He went toe to toe with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and more than held his own.
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - JUNE 28: Vladimir Petkovic, Head Coach of Switzerland celebrates with Granit Xhaka of Switzerland after victory in the penalty shoot out in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between France and Switzerland at National A
Image credit: Getty Images
His celebration after the penalty shoot-out had finished was a clear response to Pogba’s after his own brilliant goal, a lovely parting gift for the Arsenal fans.
However whenever Switzerland’s magical run comes to an end, Xhaka will be moving on to pastures new. Italy appears the most likely destination with AS Roma and Jose Mourinho the reported favourites for his signature. PSG and Juventus have also emerged as possible destinations.
Despite interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, and a clear demonstration of his unquestioned ability, it still feels as if it is the right time to leave North London and move somewhere else.
It’s easy to forget that five years ago Xhaka was hailed as the future of Arsenal’s midfield when he arrived in 2016, the same year that stalwarts like Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini departed. Xhaka was seen as a very astute signing, even if it came at the expense of then Premier League winner N’Golo Kante, whose agent fees reportedly put Arsenal off. Here is what Amy Lawrence of the Guardian wrote in the website’s transfer grades piece.
“Wenger hopes Shkodran Mustafi quickly forms a great partnership with Laurent Koscielny, while Granit Xhaka has already inspired comparisons to Emmanuel Petit in midfield.”
'You can see the player Arsenal thought they were getting!' - Time for Xhaka to go?
Obviously anyone (including this author) can look stupid in hindsight, it’s very hard to predict how transfers can work out. The point of resurfacing this quote is not to put Lawrence down in any way, but to give a reminder of how Xhaka was being viewed when he arrived.
At times there have been games where you watch Xhaka and you can see everything that made Arsene Wenger fall in love and feel like this can be a guy who dominates Premier League midfields. However, as everyone knows, it has just not worked out at all. The ill-discipline that was a concern in Germany never went away, and at times it looked like he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the top flight of English football.
However it feels important to stress that this is not all Xhaka’s fault. Since he arrived at the Emirates here are the players that Arsenal have signed to strengthen the defence or central midfield areas.
Granit Xhaka of Switzerland celebrates after defeating France during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between France and Switzerland at National Arena on June 28, 2021 in Bucharest, Romania
Image credit: Getty Images
Konstantinos Mavropanos, Sead Kolasinac, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis Papastahopoulos, Matteo Guendouzi, Denis Suarez, Stephan Lichtsteiner, William Saliba, Kieran Tierny, David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares, Thomas Partey and Gabriel.
Not a short list by any means, but hardly inspiring.
What’s the point?
This is what Xhaka said just before Euro 2020 when asked about his season with Arsenal.
"Football is a team sport and you're only as good as your team," he said.
"Of course it was a good year for me personally, I've always played and performed, but the place at the end of the season is of course really bitter and disappointing for us."
A lot of Arsenal fans might construe that as sour grapes, or a bitter attempt to score off the club before he leaves. However Xhaka has a point. Arsenal’s squad-building over the past five years or so has been nothing short of shambolic. As a result they have been leap-frogged by teams like Leicester City and West Ham United.
Image credit: Eurosport
Last season Arsenal finished 8th, behind every other member of the ‘Big Six’ as well as the aforementioned two clubs. Xhaka was one of the reasons they weren’t overtaken by a team like Leeds United, Everton or Aston Villa. He was one of the few bright spots along with someone like Bukayo Saka.
This isn’t entirely on the players around him either though. As Arteta showed this season and Vladimir Petkovic with the Swiss national team, put Xhaka in the right system and he can be a dominant force.
However his relationship with the Arsenal fans complicates matters. From the 2019 obscenity that resulted in him being stripped of the captaincy and then earlier this year when he spoke about the abuse he and his family suffered online. For whatever reason Xhaka has become the easy scapegoat for fans and that’s unlikely to change. For that reason it feels like it is best for both parties to move on. Arsenal can rebuild around Partey and other midfielders, whilst Xhaka can get a new chance, maybe in Italy.
Here’s a quote from his potential new manager, Mourinho.
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - JUNE 28: Granit Xhaka of Switzerland (C) talks to his teammates during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between France and Switzerland at National Arena on June 28, 2021 in Bucharest, Romania.
Image credit: Getty Images
"Granit Xhaka is the main man in the entire Arsenal midfield, you can't see it unless I lend you one of my eyes. Without him, Arsenal is lost. He is a leader. Remember, mistakes are made by humans."
It will be great for Xhaka to have a manager who clearly wants him and is a fan of his game. He had that to an extent under Arteta but it didn’t always seem like a sure thing.
This is a guy who was described as a young Bastian Schweinsteiger by former Swiss national boss Ottmar Hitzfeld and of whom former Basel manager Thorsten Fink once said “Xherdan Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland… after Granit Xhaka.” And cast your mind back to how hyped Shaqiri was when he was starring at Basel. He's a real leader as well, he's been proving that during this tournament and you could see his influence throughout the France game.
There is undeniable talent there, we’ve seen that times for Arsenal and we’ve often seen for Switzerland. When he officially leaves Arsenal he will not be put into the Andre Santos or Park Chu-young category. In fact give it a few years and he might be put into the same category as Serge Gnabry…