There was a time, a few years ago, when I could have kicked a ball with my eyes closed and hit multiple goodbye offerings; in fact, a part of me had started to feel less like a football writer and more like one that exclusively wrote Arsenal farewell pieces.
The last time I wrote one of these was in February 2020, and it wasn’t even a goodbye per se, more like me finally finding the words for a Santi Cazorla tribute. So, by my 2018 and 2019 standards, it has been a while. In that 2020 piece, I wrote about the inevitability of goodbyes and of “always feeling like we could have used more time with that thing, that place, that person”.
Yet here I am, sad, but with a rare clarity that Granit Xhaka departing for Bayer Leverkusen is the best possible outcome at the best possible time for both him and Arsenal Football Club.
Borussia Monchengladbach’s Xhaka arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2016 as the club’s third-most expensive signing at the time (only Mesut Oxil and Alexis Sanchez were higher). There had been many recent departures, including the retirement of a certain perfect-haired Spaniard, and, after breaking the trophy drought plaguing the Londoners with back-to-back FA Cup triumphs, signings like this one signalled a certain intent from Monsieur Wenger.
One that was unfortunately not translated anywhere near as seamlessly on the pitch where Xhaka mostly played a much deeper role that many times left him vulnerable to errors and fiery missteps. And even when the conditions were more favourable to his strengths, the support and structure around him was inconsistent as a unit. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have great moments under Wenger and in that Arsenal team—a case in point is his vital role in Arsenal’s 2017 FA Cup final win against Chelsea (it should be noted that we played a back five in this game, as Arteta himself would in the 2020 FA Cup final against Chelsea, another trophy win Xhaka was pivotal in)—or, later, once Emery arrived and identified him, like every manager he’s ever played for, as one of the leaders in the team.
Character is hard to define. But I can simultaneously tell you that Granit Xhaka has it in spades. Even during his worst, most frustrating moments (and there have been many, even after one makes allowances for the ITWGX scale invented by Andrew Mangan in response to bizarre referee decisions—what I called the ‘Granit Xhaka tax’), you couldn’t deny that here was a player who cared, who never hid or shied away from any sort of responsibility or accountability; in fact he seemed to openly relish it. “Go all in, or give up,” as he says.
Which might be one of the reasons why, more often than he’d have liked, the passionate, loyal, heart-on-his-sleeve Xhaka became the microcosm of Arsenal’s turbulence on and off the pitch. In those dark days towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. During the eventual fallout of that during Emery’s short but tempestuous North London adventure, fuelled in no small way by the new manager’s own troubles—the acrimonious nature of the exchange between the fans and him during The Incident was a complex, unholy coming together of many factors, though the player was to bear much of the brunt for what, he has accepted, was a mistake. Also, miraculously, during 2022-23, the season of the club’s definitive rebirth.
Say whatever you will about the Swiss midfielder, and he himself has said plenty in a The Players’ Tribune piece in April last year, but he has always been present. Played different roles and was different kinds of leaders, yes, but the only player to play 50+ games for Wenger, Emery, and Arteta, was consistently there for better or worse. Even after November 2019 when everyone, including me (once a supporter, always a supporter), thought he’d never pull on an Arsenal shirt again. In fact, as he shares in the Players’ Tribune piece, even his father, the person who had taught him to keep working hard and never walk away any time a problem came up in his career, was telling him to leave, to take the offer available to him for a return to the Bundesliga. In under a month, new manager Mikel Arteta requested six months to prove Xhaka wrong—after that, if he still wanted to go, absolutely—and Granit broke his own rules, saying “okay” immediately.
This instinctive decision would change the fortunes of both player and club, the former’s, notably, in a most remarkable manner.
Granit Xhaka was challenged to increase his final-third involvement and step up his attacking prowess, without shirking his defensive responsibilities. It may have taken the arrival of Martin Odegaard, the emergence of Saka and Martinelli, and, later, the addition of Zinchenko, in particular, for the player’s new-found attacking position higher up the pitch to truly start to click (not to mention the importance of the All or Nothing documentary in helping reshape public opinion about him). But the workrate and the commitment was never in doubt.
Here was the thriving, flourishing Granit Xhaka 2.0, the player he should always have been, and finally had the right conditions to become. The only player over 30 to be a regular starter in Arteta’s team—in a way, Xhaka’s constancy (297 Arsenal appearances) also meant that it was often harder to see the impact of his absence. In response, I present the fact that Bournemouth and Southampton were the only two games he didn’t start in 2022-23, and we all know what happened. It wasn’t just his character we missed, but also his technical quality that had blossomed via Mikel’s tactical evolution.
Xhaka finished the season with a brace against Wolves in his final Arsenal game, bringing his total to 9 goals and 7 assists, his highest tally in any single campaign (worthy to note that he scored all his goals from inside the box). He finished it as a beloved, key figure in Arteta’s new-look Arsenal; the one who would gather his team-mates around in a huddle to regroup after every goal scored, who would urge everyone to keep their heads and keep going when we conceded.
How many times does a player get a shot at a near-perfect goodbye?
More pertinently, how many times does a player, when offered one, take it?
I am genuinely happy that Xhaka and his beautiful family get the security of a five-year contract (which is likely to be his last) at a club, and a project, that is a better long-term fit for him at this stage in his career. Just as I am genuinely happy that he got a chance to be part of an Arsenal set-up as not only one of the respected and adored senior members, but also as someone who had the right players around him, that synchronous harmony that Arteta has brought in, so he could shine brightest while simultaneously being the epitome of the football professional team player. I am grateful that he (and his wife and young daughters) got to feel all the well-deserved love and vocal support throughout this past season; that he, and we, got the chance to say goodbye, on a high that could only have been bettered if we’d actually won the Premier League—but the lack of which doesn’t take anything away from the player’s astonishing redemption which has forever cemented his Arsenal legacy.
From arriving as the club’s then third-highest transfer fee to leaving as the highest fee received by a Premier League club for a player in their thirties (the £21.5m is significantly higher than the previous record, which was just this January when Arsenal bought Jorginho from Chelsea for £10m + £2m). From fans booing his substitution to, within 2.5 years, waving banners and chanting “Granit Xhaka, we want you to stay” at his final Arsenal game.
In Santi’s piece, I wrote about having “special expertise in dealing with a very particular heartbreak and betrayal associated with the untimely departure of players who commanded a piece of my heart before casually, carelessly stomping on every bit of available tissue as they walked out into the sunset”. Throughout his Arsenal career, Granit Xhaka has bridged managers and eras, transitioned beginnings and endings, so it’s only fitting that he leaves now, once the first few phases of the Mikel Arteta process are complete; securely passing the baton to a young team, who are ready to take us forward.
Xhaka’s is a story that has had everything, and that is perhaps why, despite the emotional nature of a goodbye like this, when I’ve sat down to write this knowing for a few months that I’d have to do it when the time came, I feel a sense of composure and closure that was lacking when I wrote about Santi, Giroud or Ramsey. And for that, my sore heart is immeasurably grateful.
Thank you and all best, Granit.