Tuesday, October 19

Granit Xhaka delivers a hard hit, but it’s the Age of Saka Arsenal must embrace | Barney Ronay | Football

When 44 minutes had elapsed, Arsenal 1-0 up and producing a performance of rare verve and energy, Granit Xhaka stepped back and stood completely still, staring at the upper right corner of Chelsea’s goal.

Bukayo Saka had been fouled 10 yards from the intersection of the penalty area and the penalty area. A free kick for Arsenal was the reward for Saka’s excellent performance. Above all, it looked like it was going to be an opportunity to run the clock in half.

Chelsea installed an obedient four-man wall. Xhaka stepped back, aligning her left foot with the right corner. There was no disguise. The ball was just heading that way in front of the empty Clock End, with its branded tarpaulins, inspirational messages and rather hopeful club motto.

Victory Through Harmony – Meet Granit. What a strange player Xhaka has been for Arsenal. For an unremarkable and largely pedestrian midfielder, the captain has at some point induced a surprisingly extreme range of emotional responses.

Does anyone even know his best position? Six and a half years ago in São Paulo, Xhaka put on a masterful display against Lionel Messi’s Argentina as a midfielder. In the Premier League he has seemed like a poorly programmed robot trying to dominate the role.

Maybe something more creative? Xhaka may enjoy standing there looking solemn and powerful on free throws, but this is a triumph of hope over the cold reality of a league goal since March 2019. He averages three assists a year.

So, leadership qualities? Hmm. We remember the fights, the funks and the fights, the nonsense that spins the matches. Xhaka had just returned to the team at the Emirates after such a silly red card against Burnley (strangling Ashley Westwood – where can this really lead, Granit?) That it left some fans demanding a public apology.

Heartbreaking frustration leavened by strange strokes of hope – this has been the tone of Xhaka’s career at Arsenal. And yet, it’s been four and a half years, almost 200 games and a couple of FA Cups.

In many ways this has been the Age of Xhaka in the Arsenal, with its trapped rage, its bursts of stagnant progress, from the canine days of Wenger’s end, to Mikel Arteta’s attempts to inject his own untested urgency into a group of remaining players. .

And now here was Xhaka redux, walking forward at an angle and striking the ball with astonishing purity, watching it rise over the end of the wall in a flat arc, away from Édouard Mendy’s left hand and into the corner of the wall. net.

Bukayo Saka celebrates after his long-range goal made Arsenal 3-0.

Bukayo Saka celebrates after his long-range goal made Arsenal 3-0. Photograph: Tom Jenkins / The Observer

Xhaka escaped without looking so surprised or pleased, perhaps wishing, for the first time since the confinement, the catharsis of local communion.

But let’s not pretend here. It seems unlikely that this marks the dawn of a glorious second age for Granit. But it may be one of the great moments of Xhaka’s time at the club, given the pressure of the occasion. Who knows, with a timely and risky appearance from the good old Granit, he may have done his coach and this team the greatest favor of his career at Arsenal.

There were green shoots here, and some hope in this performance. But he needed a win to seal the moment, though it came via a roundabout route with a wonderful goal from the embattled midfielder not scoring, a penalty saved at the end, a scandalous third goal from Saka and a slightly soft penalty in the first half. Smartly won by Kieran Tierney.

And yet Arteta’s team thoroughly deserved their 3-1 victory, a victory for the energy and unscarred verve of the younger players in the starting eleven.

When Arsenal beat these opponents in the FA Cup final at the end of the summer, there was a sense that something was taking shape, the profile of a hardworking team, breaking fast and looking happy. Fast forward five months and five key players from that day were down, ill or unavailable, including the record signing and the handsomely rewarded skipper. The sense of progress has turned into a slash and burn disaster management.

The result was an opportunity for Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, talented young players who started alongside Saka. All three set the tone, working feverishly in the first half hour.

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Smith Rowe looked ready for a fight in the center of the court, a running figure, socks hanging around his shins, always feeding the flanks. Saka, the most experienced of the three, was the key player in the game.

In his own way, he is something of an anti-Xhaka. Saka’s greatest gift is her calm gaze, her decision making, her ability to choose the right pass, at the right time. If Arteta has a future at Arsenal, it is these young and talented players who offer the most coherent view of progress at the moment.

His energy won this game. Xhaka, the man of this era from Arsenal, for better or for worse, gave it a shine that can still be significant.


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