Mikel Arteta thinks Granit Xhaka has matured both on and off the pitch in the last year and is hopeful the Swiss can continue to build a rapport with new boy Thomas Partey.
The Spaniard has paired the midfielders in the centre of the park in Arsenal’s last four Premier League games and there are signs that things are starting to click.
Granted, a draw against Manchester United and Tuesday’s defeat to Wolves mark a downturn in results after five wins in six games, but for 46 pre-red card minutes at Molineux, the Gunners produced a purr-worthy performance. At the heart of that was Arteta’s new midfield double-pivot.
Ahead of Saturday’s trip to Aston Villa, the boss was asked to assess Xhaka’s input.
He replied: “I thought he was excellent against Wolves the other night, he’s been really consistent.
“He’s improving game-by-game and his partnership with Thomas is getting stronger. They haven’t played much together and that chemistry has to flourish. They make each other better and we have a good balance between left and right foot in those spaces.
“Then, his leadership level, as well. I think he has matured a lot as a player and he has a big importance in the dressing room. On the pitch, he’s doing things much, much better than before.”
When a show of petulance led to Xhaka being sent off in the 1-0 defeat to Burnley – he was banned for three games – it felt like a frustrating step backwards for the player after a year spent rehabilitating his reputation following that incident during the 2019 clash with Crystal Palace.
His behaviour was again put under the microscope by the media and not for the first time he was the subject of abuse online. Since returning, his performances have been exemplary and Arteta believes the reaction is a sign of Xhaka’s character.
“It’s not just the Burnley game [that he got abused for],” reflected the boss. “He’s had two big episodes, you know. You can maybe overcome one of those, I think the second time he really showed that he doesn’t want to go through that again.
“We’re here to try and support our players, the club was exceptional giving him all the support. We try to do the same, the teammates did the same. He’s gone through it again. He’s getting a lot of praise for the way he’s playing. It’s down to his character and how much he wants to succeed at the club.”
Xhaka’s current contract at the Emirates runs until the end of June 2023. In the summer, the club will need to make a decision about whether to start talks over an extension. Arteta hinted the midfielder is very much part of his long-term vision for the club.
“He’s a really important player for us since I’ve been here,” he said. “He’s played almost every game and there’s no better way to show how much you like and value a player than by giving him minutes on the pitch.”