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‘I was very, very close to leaving – but Mikel was the guy who turned me around’ Granit Xhaka reveals how Arteta paved his road to redemption
The Swiss midfielder looked a certainty to depart from the Emirates after an explosive fall-out with the fans that saw him stripped of the club captaincy – but under the new manager’s guidance, Xhaka has turned the tide around and has his sights on FA Cup glory.
As toxic situations go, the club captain telling his own fans to ‘f*** off’ while being jeered off the pitch is as extreme as you’re likely to see in the world of football.
After four years, Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal career looked to have come to a nightmare end when he was withdrawn as a second-half substitute that fateful day against Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium in October.
Having seen their team throw away a two-goal lead to the visiting Eagles, fans’ patience finally ran out - with Xhaka made the focus for frustrations that had been slowly simmering as Unai Emery’s stagnant brand of football stumbled further into trouble.
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Emery defended Xhaka publicly, but the 27-year-old was banished from first team training for a number of weeks in the hopes of pacifying the growing unrest being felt from the stands.
Something had to give.
In the end it was Emery, not Xhaka, who was shown the door first, with the club’s board astutely moving for his countryman Mikel Arteta, Pep Guardiola’s then-assistant at Manchester City, to fill the managerial vacancy.
Crucially, Arteta’s arrival shortly before the festive period allowed the young Spanish coach time to convince Xhaka to stay before the January transfer window opened .
A move to the Bundesliga’s new rich kids on the block Hertha Berlin was rumoured, as well as a potential exit for Serie A giants Inter Milan – but Arteta was determined that the battling midfielder should stay.
Mikel was the guy. He turned me around and gave me a second chance
- Granit Xhaka
“I have to be honest, I’m very honest with everyone. I was very, very close to leaving the club,” Xhaka told BT Sport’s Des Kelly in the build up to the Heads Up FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.
“Until that moment [the Crystal Palace incident] I had a great, great time in this football club. But after this, I was a bit down because I did not expect that from the people, from the fans.
“But when Mikel arrived, I had a very good meeting with him, very good conversations. It was never in my mind to leave the club before [Palace], but after this happened, of course you think about it.
“But Mikel was the guy. He turned me around and gave me a second chance and he showed me he trusted me and I have tried to give him everything back.”
By his own admission, Xhaka’s rehabilitation has been a slow process.
But steadily, the club’s former captain has reminded the fans of the talent that convinced Arsene Wenger to sanction a £35m move for the ex-Borussia Monchengladbach man.
His performances after lockdown were of particular note, including his goalscoring contribution to a 4-0 win over Norwich that led to lavish praise from his manager.
“He is a player whose commitment goes beyond anything normal,” Arteta said after the match.
“He leaves every drop of blood on that football pitch every day and he does the same in training. For me, he's a great example to any other team-mate, the way he looks after himself and lives his profession.
“I'm really happy that we could convince him to stay, give him another opportunity, learn from the mistake that he made and appreciate the player and the person that we have at the club, and support them. When someone has a difficult moment, we are right behind them. We can give them another chance.”
Looking back on a turbulent season both personally and for the football club as a whole, Xhaka is philosophical.
“Everyone knows what happened with me and the fans – or the fans with me. It was not a good time. It was not a nice time. But maybe it was the key because I came back stronger than ever so I learned a lot from this situation. I hope the fans have too,” he added.
“I have always said I am a guy that will go 100% each game. Now the people have started to understand me more and more again.
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“I think this, with the fans, was an accident from both sides. Maybe a misunderstanding. But sometimes this happens in life. Maybe sometimes you need things like this to bring you back to reality and say ‘listen, we have to work more’.
“I don’t go to the game now to show the fans I am the right player for this club because I know what quality I have. The club knows why they bought me four years ago and Mikel knows that as well.
“The most important thing for me is Mikel believes in me, he trusts me and I want to give this back each training and each game.”
It speaks to the success of his reintegration that Xhaka’s name will be one of the first on the team sheet when Arsenal meet Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday evening.
Winning a trophy, eight months on from the ignominy of his darkest moment, would be some way to cap it all off.
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