When Granit Xhaka stalked off the pitch against Crystal Palace in October, flinging off his shirt and swearing at the fans booing him down the tunnel, it felt like the sort of yarn that normally has only one ending. And so it was no surprise to see him here nine months on, putting in a statement performance against one of the world’s great midfields in a resounding FA Cup semi-final victory at Wembley. Hang on. May have got my lines mixed up there. Will get back to you.
Perhaps we should no longer allow ourselves to be surprised by things like this. After all, players mature and wither. Form comes and goes. Momentum shifts. Stars periodically align. But as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal improbably stared down Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City with a display of clinical, gutsy counterattacking football, it was hard not to feel quietly flabbergasted at how quickly Xhaka seems to have earned his redemption.
At Wembley, Arsenal’s cup overflowed with heroes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should probably have scored a hat-trick. David Luiz put in a monstrous performance, the sort that feels as much expiation for past sins as exhibition of current qualities: revenge, but against himself. Kieran Tierney has probably managed to surprise even himself at centre-back. But keeping the whole show on the road was the extraordinary Xhaka: not so much the beating heart of the side but its emergency defibrillator, a player who seems to have become so much more of a leader without the armband than he ever seemed to be with it.
For all the justifiable deluge of acclaim that will accompany Arteta’s counter-punching triumph, their second in the space of three days, Arsenal were fortunate here, too. Not remotely as fortunate as they were against Liverpool on Wednesday night, but any victory achieved with 29% possession and four shots against 16 is invariably going to owe something to happenstance. And it might easily be forgotten that Arsenal could have been out of the game within 15 gasping minutes. That they were not was almost entirely Xhaka’s doing.
Arsenal really were a strange colour of fish in those opening minutes, trying to pass themselves into a game that City were intent on taking by force. First Shkodran Mustafi was dispossessed by Raheem Sterling inside his own penalty area, with Xhaka steaming in to clear. Next Riyad Mahrez’s header across goal was desperately hooked off the line. Five minutes in, and Xhaka had already saved Arsenal twice. And as Arsenal took the lead, it was Xhaka who did more than anyone to consolidate their advantage: plugging the gaps in defence, throwing himself into the path of a Kevin De Bruyne piledriver, spreading play unfussily and economically. Not until the 78th minute, with Arsenal already 2-0 up and beginning to entrench themselves, did he put his first pass astray.
So what, exactly, has happened here? Xhaka could easily have gone back to Germany in the January transfer window. Hertha Berlin were interested. His agent had given a fairly pointed interview to a Swiss newspaper along similar lines. Arteta, as a new coach looking to put his own imprint on the squad, could easily have let him. Certainly few Arsenal fans would have mourned. And given Arteta’s risk-taking, no-compromises style of play, a football reliant on players you can trust and mould to your principles, you wondered just where a player of Xhaka’s on-field and off-field indiscipline would fit in.
Yet in a way, his resurrection reflects Arsenal’s own trajectory under Arteta: a process of growth and selflessness and machine-learning. Not everything has worked. Not everything has gone to plan. But like Arteta, Arsenal have made sure they learned something from every setback. By way of illustration, contrast this performance with the supine 3-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium in the first game after lockdown. The overall approach hasn’t changed. What has is clarity of decision-making, sharpness of combinations, familiarity of assigned roles.
Certainly Xhaka seems to have benefited from a little more definition to his assignment. For much of his Arsenal career it wasn’t entirely clear to anyone – possibly including Xhaka himself – what trajectory he was supposed to be pursuing. Was he a box-to-box Vieira type? A deep-lying string-puller? Özil with a slide tackle? Francis Coquelin with a passing range? Under Arteta, and particularly in games such as this, his creative duties appear to have been streamlined in favour of accentuating his main strengths – recycling possession, smelling danger, never giving up on a lost cause.
Is this his ceiling? Is Xhaka’s improvement simply an impressive curiosity ahead of the inevitable arrival of Thomas Partey in the transfer window? Or are we finally seeing a great midfielder coming into bloom? On a landmark night for the Arteta project, perhaps the best endorsement you could give is that all three feel equally plausible.