The last time Arsenal played Crystal Palace at the Emirates, Granit Xhaka seemed to reach the point of no return.
The Switzerland international walked off the pitch to a tirade of boos from the home crowd, and with reports linking him with a move to the Bundesliga, it seemed like his time in north London was up.
But fast forward more than a year later, and Xhaka has been one of Mikel Arteta’s trusted lieutenants, featuring in 20 games this campaign. And his display on Thursday night against the Eagles proved exactly why this has been a period of redemption for the 28-year-old.
As per Sofascore, his 7.8 match rating was the highest of any player on the pitch, and when you look at the stats, it’s easy to see why. The midfielder had an astonishing 130 touches of the ball and completed 99 passes during the game (the most of any player), and he was instrumental in ensuring Arsenal recycled possession effectively.
Whilst the Gunners lacked a cutting edge going forward, Xhaka at the base of the midfield controlled the tempo, always looking to pick the ball up from the likes of David Luiz and Rob Holding before firing it out wide to the full-back.
But perhaps most impressively, he was superb going back towards his own goal. He made a game-high six tackles, with only Thomas Partey coming anywhere near that amount with four. What made Xhaka’s defensive contributions even better, were that the majority of them were to deny very dangerous Palace counter-attacks.
His timing in the challenge was perfect more often than not, including when he went to ground, invariably winning the ball and actually keeping hold of possession too. He always made sure Wilfried Zaha couldn’t have a direct run at any of his centre-backs, whilst he made a crucial game-saving interception to deny Christian Benteke a tap-in in the second-half.
Speaking after the game, Arteta raved: “He’s progressing really well. He’s played a lot of minutes, he’s evolving the right way and he’s one of our leaders for sure. He had some really important moments today.”
Football.London gave Xhaka the joint-highest rating of any Arsenal player with 7, saying: “The Swiss international is often maligned for his defensive capabilities, but there were several occasions when Xhaka did well to stop Palace counter attacks with a few nifty interceptions. Was assured on the ball as well and had a solid game overall.”
The Arsenal man was said to be “crestfallen” at full-time by ESPN’s James Olley, and it was no doubt because of the amount of effort he had personally put into the match.
Bernd Leno pulled off some outstanding saves for Arteta’s side, but Xhaka’s ability to read the game in critical moments was the real determining factor behind why they actually managed to keep a hold of their point rather than even losing that too.
And so whilst the Gunners may not have come away with a win, it did deliver another reminder of how influential Xhaka is on this Arsenal side. And given everything that happened in this corresponding fixture last season, that’s a real testament to the Swiss ace’s superb mentality and temperament.