A much maligned, hugely divisive figure, and one who has always found a way to mess things up when it looks like it’s about to go his way, but not anymore.
Granit Xhaka, a man who arrived for a hefty fee from Borussia Monchengladbach back in 2016 – £35m to be exact – saw his first few seasons at the Emirates defined by silly errors, wild long-range potshots and a lack of discipline.
Even in the early stages of the current campaign, we watched the Switzerland international hit a number of speculative, and frankly stupid, cross-field balls that were never going to reach their desired target, and consequently put his teammates under the cosh – Arsenal fans will tell you that most of those errors have been punished by the opposition.
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However, something seems to have clicked in Xhaka’s head. He is taking less risks, which he doesn’t need to do anyway as he possesses a wonderful range of passing, and in doing so is setting an example to his teammates.
The 26-year-old has also played at left-back this season, as well as at centre-back, which shows that he is becoming more of a team player in his willingness to perhaps sacrifice his own performances for the sake of what is best for Unai Emery and Arsenal.
Xhaka has previously worn the armband for the side in the absence of club captain Laurent Koscielny, which goes to show that Emery trusts him as a leader and that he is beginning to demonstrate his qualities on and off the field in terms of setting an example to his teammates.
To put his journey from being just another member of the team to a valued leader into perspective, Emery didn’t even trust the Swiss midfielder to stay on the field after a first-half booking at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. Xhaka was booked early on against Chelsea, and was withdrawn at half time with Emery saying: “It was a tactical substitution. We don’t take risks with yellow cards.”
Having previously not been trusted to even keep his head and not get sent off, his current status in the Arsenal team represents a remarkable transition.
The Gunners boss has been deploying 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 formations for much of this season, systems that depend on Xhaka being one of the most disciplined players as he starts in a two-man defensive midfield pairing, and boy has he been professional in his role.
His tackling is extremely effective, his long-range shooting is more measured as well as sensible, and Arsenal are all the better for him knuckling down and working on his game.
Arsenal fans have had to wait a while to see the best of their club’s investment, but they are being rewarded for their patience as the hard-hitting defensive midfielder has begun to smooth out the rough edges in his game to become a reliable, well-respected figure at the Emirates.
At 26, he should also be about to enter the peak of his career for a player in his position. Given his luck with injuries and excellent fitness levels, Xhaka could perhaps turn out to be a player who Emery builds his midfield around at Arsenal, or at the very least trusts to underpin it with the new-found leadership he’s shown.
If the Spaniard does end up doing that, it would represent a remarkable turnaround for a player who was previously one of the most criticised by the fanbase. Even if Emery doesn’t, Xhaka is deserving of the many plaudits that he is currently receiving, and long may it continue. A leader has been born.