LONDON — Over the turbulence of the last six years at Arsenal, Granit Xhaka’s defining trait has been his staying power. So perhaps it is appropriate that the vice captain is now preparing the next generation who will step into his midfield shoes when he does eventually part ways with the club.
In between his increasingly sterling on pitch work for Arsenal, Xhaka has been taking the first steps of his coaching career at the Hale End academy, where one of the most talked about youngsters in the English game is under his tutelage. The Premier League’s youngest debutant on Sunday, Ethan Nwaneri has been put through his paces by a man nearly twice his age in recent weeks.
“I am doing my coaching license and I have trained [him in] the under-16s,” Xhaka, who is studying for his UEFA B License, revealed after Sunday’s 3-0 win at Brentford. “You can see a big difference with him and the other guys.
“He is very, very special. Of course, you have to protect him as he is very young, but if he keeps going like this with his hard work he has a big, big future.
“I spoke with one Brenford guy and I told him this guy was 15 and he looked at me and said: ‘f— me, we are looking old!’ So yes, of course, when you have 15 years difference you think ‘OK, the time is not gone but it is on the way [for me].’ But we are enjoying him, he is enjoying us as he has the quality.
“He is not with us a lot in training. I have maybe seen him two or three times now. But he is very shy, of course, but the time will come when he will be more with us. You have to protect him and help him. Football is not everything for him and for us, but yes, the club will help him and the experienced players have to help him.”
If anyone is well placed to advise Nwaneri on the highs and lows of the game, it is Xhaka. After all, less than three years ago the idea that he might be guiding the next generation through the ranks at Arsenal was unimaginable. The story is well told now, how the then-club captain swore at supporters and seemed bound for the exit door before Mikel Arteta took charge and begged him for four more months.
Xhaka’s redemption arc started some time ago, but it has moved some way beyond just a thawing of tensions. There is genuine affinity from supporters to Xhaka, a player they once booed, one who was seen as the symbolic figure of Arsenal’s decline. Now he is playing the best football of his career and didn’t the traveling support at the Brentford Community Stadium know it? Even louder than the ear worm that is the William Saliba chant to the tune of The Champs’ “Tequila,” even louder than the applause for debutant Nwaneri, there were the chants of “we’ve got Granit Xhaka.” The man himself seemed as moved by this as any moment in an Arsenal shirt.
“I think he feels now that love and respect both ways,” Arteta told CBS Sports in his post-match press conference. “You see our supporters, the way they were singing to him as well. Emotionally, that makes him try to give even more. I’m really pleased for him because in my opinion he really deserves it.”
As recently as February, when Xhaka turned down the chance to take the armband in Arsenal’s home win over Brentford, it seemed hard to envisage the 29-year-old leading his teammates out to the adoration of his public. As he himself admitted, he thought exactly that. “I never ever thought one day this would happen, if I am being honest. To be in front of them, to have them singing my name is very, very special and emotional. I always wanted that.
“I always wanted to give them something back after what happened. We were working a lot to try and change their minds of what they had for me and I am happy for what has happened. There is more to come from myself.
“After what happened again three years ago, to be the captain and be in front of this team, and to have the fans back me means a lot for me.”
As Xhaka has changed the perception of himself, so have his Arsenal teammates forced something of a reassessment of where they are. For the first time in six years, they will enter October at the top of the table and they looked every inch one of the Premier League’s best teams as they casually dismantled Brentford at a ground where they have stunned Manchester United, Liverpool and most famously of all at the start of last season, Arsenal themselves.
There was to be no repeat of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s full time delirium 13 months ago, no raucous atmosphere on Sunday lunchtime as the visiting supporters drowned out a home ground that had been bedlam personified when the Bees announced their return to the Premier League with a 2-0 win against Arsenal. On that night, Xhaka had been altogether too chaotic, lucky not to give away a penalty in the seconds before Sergi Canos’ opener.
On Sunday, Xhaka was decisive, truly the “box to box” midfielder that Arsene Wenger had labeled him, to much mirth, six years ago. At one end, his sliding intervention denied Matthias Jensen a goal that might have caused visiting nerves to jangle. At the other, his delicate give and go with Gabriel Martinelli might have brought the game a brilliant opener in its first two minutes; his assist would eventually come when Gabriel Jesus flicked his cross between David Raya. For a team that has made a habit of losing games in bunches, this was the ideal response to their defeat against Manchester United a fortnight ago.
“If you saw us against Brentford one year ago and you see us today, my opinion is [there is] a big, big, big difference,” said Xhaka. “Saying we smashed them is a little bit too hard because I want to respect them, but I think we deserved to win today from the first minute to the 90th minute.
“We could have scored after a minute with Martinelli and they didn’t really have one chance, apart from one in maybe the 80th minute, but we are very happy.
“A couple of years ago, it was an issue as we would lose, for example, against Manchester United and then lose again, and again and again, and [only] then [do] you come back. But this year, I have a feeling it is different and here, you saw the result.”
It is perhaps no wonder that Xhaka has that feeling. After all, if anyone’s Arsenal story has changed over the last few months it is his own. If that upswing were to be writ large across the entire squad this season would certainly be a very different story indeed.