MIKEL ARTETA hopes Granit Xhaka will fully experience redemption when he feels the warm embrace of a packed Arsenal stadium next season.
Many fans and pundits alike believed the Swiss international midfielder would never play for Arsenal again after he was stripped of the captaincy by then manager Unai Emery last November
Xhaka had been booed off the pitch as he trudged off in reaction to being subbed against Crystal Palace, worsening the situation by cupping his ear, removing his shirt and appearing to swear at supporters.
The incident led to an extended spell out of the first team squad, for a player who had already divided opinion since his £35m arrival from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016.
But Emery’s replacement Arteta recognised an above average player with a will to succeed and spent many an hour coaxing the 27-year-old back to full physical and mental health.
His form under the Spaniard, notably since football’s restart, means he is now the first name on the team sheet for manager and supporters alike when it comes down to midfield selection.
Arteta acknowledges there had been a thawing in relations between Xhaka and supporters pre-lockdown, but predicts the best is yet to some.
He explained: “For a football player when you are on the pitch and you feel you have the fans supporting and you feel their love, it gives you an immense amount of energy and drive.
“Hopefully, he can enjoy that when the fans are back in our stadium.”
It could be argued playing behind closed doors has been a bonus for players such as Xhaka, an occasional lightning rod for football’s ‘boo-boys.
That is one for Xhaka himself, but Arteta stated: “People know better than me what happened and how much it affected all sides when that issue occurred.
“When I arrived here I had a very high opinion of him and knew him really well. I had to convince him he had a future, he had a place here and he could enjoy his career and his family could be happy here.
“He is a player that when he commits he goes 100 per cent. He has worked really hard and he has won everybody’s trust again.
“I think he’s started to enjoy it again and, normally, when you have those two aspects together – that’s when players perform at the highest level.”
Xhaka will end the Premier League season in an empty stadium, of course, against a Watford side desperately battling against relegation.
Arsenal are locked in mid-table ahead of an FA Cup Final they must win against Chelsea this weekend to play European football next season.
Either way, the challenge will continue to be the biggest of Arteta’s career as he marks six months into his first managerial post.
“A big challenge? Without a question of a doubt,” said the top flight’s youngest manager at 38. “I could write a book about the last six months. I have enjoyed it too.
“The pressure is something I put myself under because I want the best.
“I know the standards of this club and for me it is very difficult to accept certain things. And I’m putting detail into a lot of things that I know have to be a must in order to work.”