Granit Xhaka: Arsenal midfielder at heart of team’s success after turbulent relationship with fans

by Emmanuel Okikiola

Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka admits he went to a “dark place” after an angry interaction with his own fans at Emirates Stadium three years ago very nearly forced him out of the club. During a 2-2 Premier League draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019, the newly-appointed Arsenal captain was substituted by then-manager Unai Emery to jeers from his own fans. Xhaka reacted by waving and cupping his ear sarcastically, exchanging angry words with some fans before taking off his shirt and heading straight down the tunnel. “I wish nobody would be in the situation where I have been,” said Xhaka, who continued his fine form this season with the winner in Arsenal’s 1-0 Europa League victory over PSV Eindhoven.. “It was the most difficult time for myself and for my family.” The incident led to him losing the captaincy and took the Switzerland international to the brink of leaving the club. This season, however, has marked an incredible turnaround in his fortunes, with Xhaka emerging as a key component in Mikel Arteta’s side, who sit top of the Premier League with a quarter of the campaign gone and are now guaranteed to progress beyond the group stage in the Europa League. Xhaka, 30, told Football Focus: “I was very, very close [to leaving Arsenal] and when I say very, very close, it was like you guys have the stuff here and I only needed to take the stuff and to leave the door. “In this moment, you don’t see anybody near you. This is the biggest problem. You are sitting in a dark place, feeling alone. “You know you have people around but you have no chance to touch them – and this is how I felt. “You try not to go so deep and to see the message what they [internet trolls] are writing, what the people are speaking in front of the TV but you can’t ignore [it]. “If you ask me to go back and to think about it, I don’t want to because I don’t want to go back and to feel the same pain I had, but I was very, very strong, with the family, with the people around and we are sitting here now in a different story.” The arrival of Arteta as manager in December 2019 proved pivotal, with the Spaniard convincing Xhaka to stay. He added: “I had never met Mikel before but I told him from the first meeting we had that I want to leave. It was nothing against him but the story that happened here, I can’t play again with that shirt. “He is very honest and very straight. I am like this myself as well. I don’t like it when people speak in front of you and then behind you they are playing games. “He knows exactly what he wants from me, he knows exactly where the process will go and I felt the moment is right to say ‘yes I will stay’.” This season, Xhaka has been at the top of his game in a team going from strength to strength, with nine wins from the first 10 league matches. “I feel very good and I prepared myself in the summer much more than ever before,” he said. “But I think I am not at my limit. “It’s a different team, a much younger team than when I came in 2016. We had much more experienced players, they had won a lot of trophies already, so the hunger now is maybe much more than before. “We had the quality always in the team but we didn’t have the mentality I think to say ‘listen, it doesn’t matter if you lose one game, you beat the next one’. “This club has to play for these trophies, it doesn’t matter which one it is.”

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