Jhe beloved behind-the-scenes documentaries of modern times aren’t known for their rough edges, but for Granit Xhaka, that was part of the problem. He allowed cameras into his house for the Amazon series that followed Arsenal last season and if that humanized him beyond the sharp, sometimes reckless, often divisive but often highly effective persona seen on the pitch, then the film had done its job.
“For me, it’s okay because I have nothing to hide,” he says. “I am Granite here and the same at home. Only on the football field do I have a different mask: people have to accept it.
This is Xhaka’s seventh season at Arsenal and it’s been a spell that defies interpretation. He started as the first-choice in midfield, although most of Mikel Arteta’s players have changed virtually beyond recognition in the past two years. Only Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, neither of whom are particularly close to regular first-team football, remain from Xhaka’s debut campaign in 2016-17. Unexpectedly, given that he was halfway out the door when Arteta arrived, Xhaka outlasted more famous names and that’s a powerful argument for the idea fans’ eyes don’t usually see. all the story.
Has he changed since that infamous encounter with the Emirates crowd in the game against Crystal Palace in October 2019, which led to him being on the verge of joining Hertha Berlin that winter? “I think I’ve always been a good person, but different,” says the 29-year-old. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Was last season the best Granit since you’ve been here?’ But I never had any problems at this club, neither with the teammates, nor with the people in the building. It was only this moment with the Palace game, everything else was fine with the club.
“People only see the moment when they were disappointed and they forgot the other five years. But that’s part of the business, people don’t see the rest, they only see the moment and they give you a number that whether good or bad.
This perhaps conceals some of the missteps that colored Xhaka’s early work at Arsenal and, in the form of aberrations like a costly red card against Burnley a year later, continued to seep in thereafter. Still, when a player is consistently liked by managers, it’s a clear sign that his pros outweigh his cons and should be noted. Xhaka had told Arteta: ‘I’m gone, I can’t wear the shirt anymore’ when they first met in December 2019 and was only persuaded to stay after the Spaniard implored him to hold out for another six month.
He survived several rounds of showdowns which saw Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang among those to leave, and overcame another wobble last year when he signed a contract extension after Roma failed to entered into an agreement for his services. Arteta trusts him, even in a team that has evolved to play the kind of fast and fluid football that Xhaka had to struggle with, and no one in the dressing room would denounce his influence on the team.
Xhaka thinks people would feel more sympathetic towards footballers and move away from lazy tropes if they could look under the hood more often. When he played for Borussia Mönchengladbach, fans came in droves to watch the team train: there was no suggestion of a hiding place and he laments that it is not part of the culture in England.
“People who don’t see us in training don’t see how hard we work,” he said. “They only see us within 90 minutes. Everyone has a good day and a bad day. That’s why I talked to the club about it: “Why can’t we bring the fans, maybe once a week, to see us how we train?” It’s not like we come here to waste our time and after that we don’t care about the 90 minutes.
“We care more than people think. Me and Aaron [Ramsdale] for example, we can’t sleep after the game when we lose, but nobody can see it. It makes me very disappointed and very sad that after that people start saying: ‘You didn’t give your all for the club’. It’s shit. But it’s so difficult in England to get people to the training ground. In Germany it’s different: you have two, three, four thousand people and they come every day.
Anyone walking to the London Colney touchlines would see a coach Xhaka has described, with good humor, as “a freak”. Arteta opened her eyes. “I had several coaches, but Mikel is maybe one of the best because of the way he explains, the way he prepares,” he said. “It is not normal.
“We know exactly what we have to do. Not just the first step but the second and third after, with the ball and without the ball. The way we prepare is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
The feeling is that Arsenal are better placed for a return to the top four than at any time since the season they gave up the Champions League places, which turned out to be Xhaka’s first in the north of London and sowed the seeds of discontent from which he recovered. They host Leicester on Saturday following an opening night victory at Crystal Palace and he believes the fruit of Arteta’s labor will soon, like his own domestic life, be evident.
“We are building something very special here,” he says. “It’s a shame that I only have two years left on my contract. Let’s see what happens after two years, but I see a big, big future for this club.”
Granit Xhaka: ‘People say you don’t give your all for the club, but that’s bullshit’ | Nick Ames