Granit Xhaka has said that his father’s struggle for freedom in Kosovo has spurred him on to be the best player possible.
Ragip Xhaka was 22-years-old when he was taken to jail, where he spent the next three-and-a-half years for participating in demonstrations against the communist central government in Belgrade. Seeking democracy and freedom at a time of conflict and confusion, he paid a high price for voicing his beliefs.
“It’s true that my father was imprisoned for three and a half years and it was because he stood up for what he believed in,” Xhaka told Swiss newspaper Blick in 2014. “It’s not a taboo subject in our household, we talk about it. After all, I want to know what happened.”
Xhaka has endured an unpredictable first campaign at Arsenal, where he has been tirelessly criticised and his performances analysed in detail with many suggesting he’s a waste of money.
That couldn’t be further away from the truth though, as the 24-year-old midfielder has been one of Arsenal’s best and most consistent performers in an otherwise forgettable campaign.
Ahead of this afternoon’s FA Cup Final against Chelsea, Xhaka was keen to stress he wouldn’t change his ways whilst also remaining honest.
“I can’t stand people who are backward, I am honest, straightforward. I don’t like to pretend. And I will not change either,” he stated.
His low moments for the Gunners have been the two red card dismissals, one against Swansea and the other against Burnley. Both memorable for different reasons, questions have been continually asked as to whether he has fully adapted to the English style of football.
It’s easy to forget that team-mate Laurent Koscielny received two red cards and 10 bookings during his first season in England’s top flight. Now, the experienced Frenchman is one of the league’s best defenders and has proven significant at the back for Arsenal.
It wouldn’t have been easy to deal with all of the noise but Arsene Wenger’s advice has proven important for Xhaka’s development, learning from precarious situations whilst not letting criticism get to him.
“It doesn’t trouble me at all – nobody trips me up that easily,” he continued. “What annoys me are the people who call me dirty, stupid and brainless. Those kind of words you don’t use about someone you don’t know.
“Aggression is a part of my game and when someone takes that away, I am not the same any more. I have analysed my red cards very closely and I have also seen that a lot of my fouls happen in the opposition half, which is too far away from our goal. That must stop. But I am not going on to the pitch to pull out of a tackle,” Xhaka added.
Xhaka has always found a way to succeed, even in the face of adversity. It is this impressive attitude that helped him stand out from the rest in previous seasons.
World-Cup winning midfielder Rainer Bonhof said the Swiss international is “a fighter”, as per the Guardian.
“When he came to Gladbach from Basel [in 2012], he couldn’t get the opportunities to play in his first season but he needed time to adapt to the rhythm of the Bundesliga,” Bonhof said. He did adapt and he became the leader of the team.
“He is always quickly done with any setbacks and is able to concentrate on the next match. It is part of what makes him a little bit different to anybody else. If you remember, Mesut Özil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski at Arsenal – they took a couple of months or a half-year to accept English football and the style of it. I think, for sure, you will see there is a lot more coming from Granit.”
Described as someone who “plays on the edge”, the midfielder’s lack of acceleration has been highlighted as a key weakness for someone operating as a protector for the backline.
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, who could’ve joined Arsenal last summer, has been regularly used as an example of the midfielder that Wenger should have targeted instead of Xhaka even though both are different types of players.
A ball-playing number eight, as opposed to a tireless workhorse in Kante’s role, Xhaka’s excellent passing range, vision and composure in possession have helped create plenty of chances whilst only Chelsea defender César Azpilicueta has completed more passes in the Premier League than Granit’s 2,298, though the Spaniard played every match this past campaign for Antonio Conte’s side.
Xhaka’s Wembley adventure continues today and it’s against the newly-crowned champions, where he’ll be hoping to achieve a piece of silverware during an otherwise frustrating campaign for the club.
According to Xhaka, Wenger’s approach when attempting to encourage him towards north London was, “If you want to go to paradise, come to us.”
It hasn’t been such a peaceful ride this term but the experiences are sure to have helped Xhaka develop both as a player and a person.