Everyone wants to know the secret behind Granit Xhaka’s transformation into a goalscoring midfielder — and to find the answer, you have to go back to his childhood.
The 30-year-old has scored four goals, more than he managed in the previous three seasons combined.
That may have come as a surprise to some, but Xhaka has never doubted his ability in front of goal.
“I was born like a striker,” he says. “No, really! Until I was 12 or 13 I was playing like a striker and then they put me in midfield. Now you know that, so let’s see how many people talk about it!”
So the secret is out, but the challenge for opposition defences will be finding a way to stop Xhaka as he and Arsenal bid to maintain their early challenge to Manchester City.
Xhaka has been virtually ever-present for Arsenal this season, missing only 17 minutes of Premier League action.
That statistic does not surprise the Switzerland captain, who puts his availability down to his “genetics” and “mentality” — and he is not shocked that Arsenal are top of the table, either.
“I am not surprised, because in pre-season I had a good feeling at how everything was working,” Xhaka says. “The team spirit we built then was something I didn’t have at this club until now. I knew this season could be a special one for everyone, for ourselves, for the club.”
The unity in the Arsenal squad is in stark contrast to when Mikel Arteta took over from Unai Emery midway through the season in 2019, a period that Xhaka describes as “chaos”.
We have a lot of respect for Man City — but let’s see how far we can challenge them, as well as ourselves.
That team spirit was especially evident last weekend, when Arsenal players celebrated wildly on the pitch after their 1-0 win at Chelsea. Those celebrations were extra special for Xhaka, who conducted a TV interview in front of a jubilant away end as they sang his name.
Xhaka, however, has noticed the togetherness more in tough moments, such as when the squad learned last month that team-mate Pablo Mari had been stabbed in a supermarket attack in Italy. Mari, on loan at Monza, has had surgery and is recovering.
The Arsenal squad rallied together, contacting Mari and organising a shirt with his name on as a tribute during their 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest.
“I spoke with him straight away, with his wife,” says Xhaka. “It makes me feel a lot of emotions. He was a team-mate and I was very close with him. It was something we players spoke about, but as well the club, what we can do for him.”
The Mari incident impacted Xhaka so deeply because, like the Spanish defender, he is a father. Xhaka has two children with his wife, Leonita, and he thinks they are another secret behind his Arsenal renaissance.
“Believe me, two children are hard work!” he says. “But, thank God, I am sleeping very well. Since I have the kids my sleep is much better. I am going early to sleep and waking up early, instead of going to bed at midnight or 1am and waking up at 9am, for example.”
Not that Xhaka has time for much rest now, as he prepares to finish a busy period with Arsenal before going off to captain Switzerland at the World Cup.
He hopes his country, who are in a group with Brazil, Serbia and Cameroon, can do something “special” in Qatar, where he believes the level of football will be higher than usual at a major tournament.
“Sometimes after the season you are tired and you want to relax and go on holiday,” Xhaka explains. “But I think in the middle of the season to have like a World Cup can be something good. Sometimes you are so tired that you don’t have the power enough to play in the summer.”
Xhaka also wants to achieve big things with Arsenal, who are two points clear of Pep Guardiola’s City.
Many expect the reigning champions to prove too strong over the course of the season, but Xhaka wants the Gunners to embrace the challenge.
“We have a lot of respect for Man City because they [have been] doing this for many, many years, winning trophies, buying big players,” says Xhaka.
“But this is our challenge. It is a nice challenge to compete with one of the best teams in Europe. Let’s see how far we can challenge them, but as well ourselves.”