Good morning, early start, lots to get through.
Let’s begin with the departure of Granit Xhaka, who officially signed for Bayer Leverkusen yesterday. The fee is decent enough in the context of the current market, around £21.5m all things considered, and he leaves after 297 games for the club.
To say his time in North London was eventful would be doing it a disservice. Signed by Arsene Wenger in 2016, for big money too, there was confusion about what kind of player he was. He ended up playing deep, and as we came to learn that was not the way to get the best out of him. An excellent passer of the ball, he was a bit ponderous at times, and that led to lots and lots of yellow cards and more mistakes than we’d like.
There were some red cards too, some of them deserved, but some outright nonsense. The one where he was dismissed for a bog-standard foul was outrageous, I’ve never seen it before or since. It led me to the invention of the ITWGX scale, where his fouls were more harshly punished than others. Part of that was because he was a fiery character, and I will admit that some of his behaviour frustrated me.
However, in the fullness of time, I think I understand him a bit better. This is a very driven, determined guy who expects high standards of himself and those around him. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that for the majority of his career, he was involved in Arsenal teams that were not good enough. The end of the Arsene Wenger era saw the former boss tinker with formations to try and get the best out of players who were not at the level required. The Unai Emery era was nothing less than a shambles, and while not all of that was on the now Aston Villa coach, the club was a mess.
The incident against Crystal Palace is not something I’m going to make any excuses for, but it was the lid coming off a kettle that had been steaming for weeks. Emery meekly delayed the appointment of Xhaka as captain for no good reason, fan frustration with the team was simmering week on week, and in some respects Xhaka became a lightning rod for all of it in that moment. He shouldn’t have done what he did, but there was a lot more to it than him just losing his mind because he was being subbed.
Look, we don’t need another big post-mortem on that, enough was said at the time. Suffice to say that when Emery got sacked and Mikel Arteta was appointed, this was the first of many shit-storms a rookie manager had to face. In retrospect, the fact he was able to talk Xhaka around, to convince him to stay after everything that had happened and with a move to Bundesliga club all set up, is the first example of how compelling our current manager can be. The easy thing for Xhaka to do would have been to pack his bags and go somewhere else. Arteta convinced him otherwise, and that really must have been a hell of a conversation.
It also demonstrated a strength of character in Xhaka that I guess we always knew was there but which had never properly manifested itself in a positive way. When a players lose the fans, it is the hardest thing in football to win them back – and this situation was especially challenging. He fronted up though. Gradually, despite some periods when he was asked to play at left-back, he began to feature higher up the pitch. It took him away from the areas where his lack of mobility was punished, and allowed other aspects of his game to flourish.
Arteta challenged him. Score more, assist more, or I’ll get someone else who can. He stepped up. 9 goals and 7 assists last season, and he probably should have had more. As the level of the team improved, Xhaka improved with it. I think a large part of his frustration in the past was because he knew this was a club that was under-performing, and he played a big part in the step forward we took last season. You might not agree, which is fair enough, but despite some silly moments, I don’t think he was a player who held us back, per se. There were a lot of other things we had to fix before we got to him. And now we’ve reached that point.
I’ve watched Arsenal for a long time, and I don’t think I can ever remember a story quite like his. To go from zero to hero in the way he did is genuinely remarkable. And I believe his decision to go this summer plays into that too. When the crowd sang ‘Granit Xhaka, we want you to stay’ during the final game of last season, it was both a tribute to him, but also a gesture. We knew he was leaving, and I think everyone understood it was for the best. Not least the player himself. He has chosen his moment perfectly.
He is 30 years of age. Arsenal have been thinking about a midfield revamp, and the £100m arrival of Declan Rice is a sign we’re moving forward, and in a different direction now. Xhaka has helped us get to the point where we can make a signing like that. He also wants some security from his last contract. Five years at Leverkusen makes sense for him; five more years at Arsenal makes no sense for us. So, the time is right. We get some money in, we build on what we’ve done, and say goodbye to a player who has divided opinion, but who can leave with his head held high.
There’s a reason why every manager picked him every week. There’s a reason why every player in the dressing room holds him in such high regard. Whatever else you might say about him, he cared. Sometimes that was misplaced, but give me a guy like that over someone with more talent but who can barely even bother going through the motions. I wish him well in Germany.
Right, I’ll leave it there. I know there have been other developments. A new contract for Reiss Nelson is official, we expect an announcement on a new deal for William Saliba imminently too. Thoughts on those tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, recorded yesterday evening. Happy listening.