Granit Xhaka's chaotic Arsenal journey ends in fitting style

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka waves to fans during the lap of appreciation after the match - Reuters/David Klein

Granit Xhaka arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2016, when the club had just finished second in the Premier League. He is expected to leave them in the summer of 2023, after they have just finished second in the Premier League.

Based on those two snapshots alone, an uninformed observer might assume that little has changed at the Emirates Stadium in those seven years. On the most simplistic level, it could be said that Xhaka is departing the club as he found it.

Clearly, that would be a gross misreading. For these have been the wilderness years at Arsenal, a club shut out of the Champions League since 2017, and no player better embodies the chaotic journey than Xhaka, the midfielder who has perhaps lived through more turbulence – collective and personal – than any other in Arsenal’s recent history.

In many ways, the story of Arsenal since 2016 is also the story of Xhaka. The two go hand-in-hand and, as he played what was surely his final game for the club, it felt entirely appropriate that it was he who took the headlines again. With two first-half goals, he made sure that this Sunday in May will be forever remembered as his day.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Xhaka appeared destined to leave Arsenal out the back door. Now, assuming his move to Bayer Leverkusen is finalised as expected, he can walk out the front, with his head held high and with the fans singing his name.

The sheer fact that Xhaka is departing on a positive note is an achievement in itself, given how painful the lows have been over the past few years of his professional life. There appeared to be no way back after he swore at his own supporters and was stripped of the captaincy by Unai Emery in 2019, but his relationship with the club and fans has been rebuilt from the rubble.

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Emirates Stadium in London - AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Mikel Arteta would not confirm that Xhaka is leaving, but did say: “He has had an incredible season. One year back I spoke to him and told him: ‘there’s a question mark on you, you have to deliver more, you have to be better, I’m going to challenge you to play here.’

“He went back and I think he started to train the next day. He came back in pre-season four kilos less, fit, and really willing to do it. He has been exceptional. I’m so happy everybody is appreciating what he has done.”

It is a measure of Xhaka’s resilience, and his importance to Arteta over the past three years, that he received such an enthusiastic send-off in this final-day stroll past a disinterested Wolves.

The Swiss midfielder’s song was the first to be sung by the home supporters and those cheers only became louder when he struck the early opener. It was a rare header, from an accurate Gabriel Jesus cross, and it was followed by a celebration which carried clear emotional significance.

More was to follow just three minutes later, when Martin Odegaard’s attempted flick was diverted into Xhaka’s path. This time he celebrated by the dugout, where long-time team-mate Mohamed Elneny (currently injured) was waiting for a hug.

Remarkably, Xhaka could even have scored a first-half hat-trick. Perhaps knowing how silly that would have been, he sliced horribly wide.

For the rest of the afternoon, almost every one of Xhaka’s touches was greeted with cries of “shoot” from the home supporters. He resisted the urge, instead allowing his team-mates to join him on the scoresheet for this drubbing of Wolves.

Julen Lopetegui’s side have long since checked out of this campaign. Bukayo Saka scored Arsenal’s third by cutting inside and curling into the far corner, before Jesus added the fourth with a back-post header, from Leandro Trossard’s cross, after the break.

New signing Jakub Kiwior made it five with around 10 minutes to play, as he converted a half-cleared set piece, but the moment to savour in the second half was Xhaka’s substitution. The Emirates Stadium rose as one to salute the departing midfielder, and many fans even pleaded for him to stay, which really was the ultimate proof of how far he has come on his wild journey at the club.