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Bayer Leverkusen’s Granit Xhaka exceeds expectations after Arsenal exit to become heart of Xabi Alonso’s side

BERLIN — Granit Xhaka arrived at Bayer Leverkusen 11 months ago with the sort of great expectations of himself and his teammates that have made him such an admired figure by his managers throughout his career. Even he, however, had to acknowledge that an undefeated domestic campaign that ended with him lifting the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal was beyond what he might have asked of himself.

Xhaka was Bayer Leverkusen’s match-winner at the Olympiastadion on Saturday night, his 30-yard strike early in the first half giving the league champions an advantage they held on to even after Odilon Kossounou was given a second yellow card just before the halftime break.

Former Arsenal midfielder Xhaka has been a critical figure in a season of far greater success than Leverkusen could have imagined, the Swiss international setting Bundesliga records for touches, passes completed and passes attempted. The 31-year-old is no less valued at the club for his off-field influence, a key link between Xabi Alonso and the dressing room in a side who set a post-war European record by going 51 games unbeaten in all competitions.

“My expectations were very high,” Xhaka told CBS Sports of his expectations on joining Leverkusen in early July 2023. “I’m that sort of person. Of course, you can dream it but you need to do a lot of work to get it.

“To get two trophies after the first year was more than I was expecting. For sure we have goals over the years but [to achieve them] was more than deserved. [Saturday] was not an easy game for us after the red card. The team showed great character, great mentality and to be here, to stand here with my family, it’s something you dream about.”

The work will not stop for Xhaka, who is due to captain the Swiss squad at Euro 2024. Before that, he will return to England on Monday to complete his UEFA A Coaching Licence. The on-field coach at Leverkusen could one day be taking his skills to the dugout. For now, however, he sees plenty left to achieve as a player.

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“If I could change time I would start [my badges] earlier,” said Xhaka, who started his coaching courses while an Arsenal player. “For sure I want to be a player much longer but this coaching license helped me a lot: about the personality, the character, how you see the game from the outside. My challenges are still as a player though and I’ll enjoy that as much as possible.”

If Xhaka does need an endorsement when he sets out in pursuit of coaching roles he is certain to find one from Alonso. The Bayer Leverkusen boss made Xhaka one of his primary targets in his first summer transfer window at the BayArena and has been rewarded with a season of such excellence that his DFB-Pokal winner might not even rank among the top three goals the midfield anchorman has scored.

“He made my job a lot easier,” said Alonso of his No. 34. “He played a big part in this success; without him it wouldn’t have been possible.”

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