Football News153 Games Later, Granit Xhaka Departs Arsenal as a Fan Favourite.
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Granit Xhaka was on his way out of Arsenal in 2019, stripped of the captaincy and the most-hated player at the club… 153 games later, he departs a fan favourite.

At the heart of Mikel Arteta’s young, impressive and dynamic side was an unlikely hero who, four years ago, looked set for the exit having been stripped of the captaincy. His future, under a dark and acrimonious cloud, seemed destined to complete an extraordinary redemption arc.

Granit Xhaka’s fall had been shocking, explosive and seemingly irreversible. But now with his move to Bayer Leverkusen confirmed, he departs a hero, beloved more than ever by supporters.

‘We are saying goodbye to a fantastic player and person loved by all of us,’ said Arteta of the midfielder’s exit.

‘The influence Granit has had on his team mates on the pitch and colleagues at the club, will tell you just how popular he is.’

“He was unable to cap off a dramatic seven-year stint in north London with the crown that supporters have craved for 19 years. But nevertheless leaves having forced his way into Arsenal folklore for all the right reasons”.

In July 2016, a 23-year-old Xhaka arrived from Borussia Moenchengladbach for £35million. Here, he had built up a reputation as an undeniably talented, but hot-headed midfielder. Never shy of a tackle, he had picked up six red cards in his four seasons in Germany as well as 38 yellows. However, his impressive passing range made up for that. Besides, disciplinary issues can be coached out of a young player.

The Swiss international came straight into the fold, seen as the natural replacement for an increasingly ailing Jack Wilshere, to partner Aaron Ramsey at the heart of midfield, behind Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez – a duo that earns greater legend with every passing season.

Combative, passionate, and blessed with a beautiful left foot, his first campaign offered fans exactly what they could expect: four goals, three assists and two sendings off. He was being deployed in a far deeper role by Arsene Wenger, but still managed to show what he was capable of.

His debut season saw the Gunners miss out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years, a run that would go on for  six straight years. And with their side out of contention with the biggest and best the world had to offer, the fingers began to point, despite the 2017 FA Cup trophy.

Wenger’s reign came to an end in 2018, but Unai Emery still could not bring the Champions League back to the Emirates Stadium, yet Xhaka continued to feature prominently, becoming a common denominator that struggled to escape notice.

It didn’t help that he thrived for his country at the 2018 World Cup, showing a side to his game higher up the field that he was denied at Arsenal as the designated holding midfielder, where his creative talents were restrained.

By the time that fateful day came around on October 27 2019, exactly one month after being named the captain he had been tipped to become, Xhaka’s stock had fallen somewhat, often bearing the brunt of discontent in the fan base.

With Emery’s second season at the club hitting stumbling block after stumbling block, the growing bitterness between the fans and the club all erupted. The hosts let slip a 2-0 lead against Crystal Palace at the Emirates, the visitors equalising by the hour mark.

Xhaka was taken off for a young Bukayo Saka much to the delight of the crowd. Perhaps understandably, as his exit was hailed, the skipper took offence, cupping his ears and taunting fans, mouthing the hardly pacifying words: ‘F*** off!’.

Not yet content, he committed a cardinal sin among the febrile crucible of football, and took off his shirt in anger before he had even left the field, storming down the tunnel and away from the action, surely for good.

‘My bags were packed,‘ he said. ‘The passports were out. I was done with Arsenal. Finished”.

‘There was a contract on the table from another club, and all I had to do was sign. I had talked with my wife, Leonita, and we had decided to leave. I was just going to say goodbye to Mikel, and then we would board the plane.’

He added: ‘When I close my eyes now, I can still see their faces. I can see their anger”.

‘It’s not that they don’t like me. No, it’s different. This is hate. Pure hate. I am really not exaggerating this.’

Arteta, however, had different plans. As he returned to the club, so did Xhaka with assurances that he still had a future at Arsenal. Football fans do not forget, but it turns out a tactical tweak, a global pandemic, and tireless work were good enough to earn back their favour.

The absence of fans in stadiums needless to say benefited the Swiss midfielder. Without the scrutiny and pressure in the ground, there was an easing of the tension around him. The second of his two FA Cups came at the end of the 2019-20 season, and although they didn’t yet love him, the fans perhaps disliked him with a touch less vigour.

By summer 2021 there were offers on the table for him. Even the £10m on offer from Roma seemed a decent price given the crushing blow his reputation had taken and it seemed the right time to end a failed move to the Premier League. Once again, the midfielder came close to the exit, only for another Arteta-inspired change of heart.

‘Without him [Arteta], I would not be here in this football club anymore,’ Xhaka revealed to ESPN in 2022.

‘He helped me a lot when I was completely down. He took me aside, helped me with small things, step by step, tactically, as a person, mentality, between the team and the club, tried to help me as well with the fans.’

Part of the irresistible appeal of the Xhaka narrative is the fact that there was no sudden, watershed moment to signal the change in his fortunes. 2021-22 seemed to be just another season; 30 games a goal and a couple of assists, even the two red cards that he never quite managed to avoid.

But in much the same way as Arsenal’s tilt at the title seemingly came from nowhere, so did the final phase of Xhaka’s transformation.

Rather than alongside Thomas Partey at the base of a 4-2-3-1 formation, he was pushed into a mezzala role. Not quite a No 8, not quite a No 4 and not quite a No 10, but something completely different entirely. The effect? Emphatic.

Suddenly, Xhaka was all over the pitch, the turmoil he had endured seemingly bottled up and released in one energetic season that saw him play the second-most games of any player, just one behind Saka and Gabriel Magalhaes.

He ended his Arsenal career with 23 goals; nine of those came in 2022-23, as well as seven assists in the league – the most he ever managed. Everything was suddenly completely different even the card count came down to just eight in all competitions.

The Gunners looked destined for the title, and no player represented their change in fortunes over the past three years as well as Xhaka, but it wasn’t to be. A succession of disappointing results towards the end proved their undoing, and the relentless, robotic City machine trampled over them on the way to the Treble.

By the time that second-place was confirmed, so too seemed to be Xhaka’s future. A £13m return to Germany – this time Bayer Leverkusen – was all but agreed, and the Gunners were set to finally part ways with the player, at the third time of asking.

Now, £13m seemed somewhat too low a fee for the player he had become, but few were willing to deny him a move after so spectacularly winning round the fans. All that was left was to give him a send-off at the end of an emotionally-draining campaign.

True to the theatrical nature of his Arsenal career, though, Xhaka twice got on the score sheet – something he’d never managed before – and the Gunners won 5-0. After 90 minutes, a still-packed Emirates stood and applauded their former skipper singing ‘We’ve got Granit Xhaka’ one last time as he said farewell to each corner of the ground.

The parallels with that fateful day in October 2019 were abundantly clear; same fans, same ground, but a completely different player.

Xhaka departs under such drastically different circumstances to those that seemed to bring an unceremonious end to his career. He may not have brought the club the Premier League crown they so ardently desire, but he has played a perhaps unappreciated role in returning them to the Champions League.

Having performed so excellently, it is a shame that will not play for the Gunners in Europe’s premier competition next year, having paved the way for Declan Rice and Kai Havertz to do so, but they will be grateful for his efforts all the same, which seem to have added an extra £10m to his transfer fee.

For all his work to win the fans back, he has not re-written his history at the club, and neither the player nor the supporters will ever forget the events of that fateful October day.

But that is exactly why they love him so much. Not in spite of his past, but because they know just how far he has come to win their trust back, turning down the easy option of a hasty exit out the back door, all to earn his place alongside Ramsey, Sanchez, Cazorla and Ozil as one of their best players of the last decade.