How Xhaka became world class for club and country

The official player of the match against Hungary and Germany, Granit Xhaka was also described as “the best player on the pitch” by Roy Keane in Switzerland’s 2-0 win over Italy in the round of 16. He is having an extraordinary Euro 2024.

England await in the last eight and, with concerns over an injury, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Switzerland’s hopes may hang on Xhaka’s fitness. There is much at stake. He could be one more big performance away from being the player of this tournament.

For English audiences, those who recall Xhaka being booed from the field by his own supporters when an Arsenal player in 2019, all this requires a bit of mental recalibration. He has morphed into one of the best midfielders in the world in these past two years.

Switzerland's Granit Xhaka, left, and Hungary's Dominik Szoboszlai challenge for the ball during a Group A match between Hungary and Switzerland at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Cologne, Germany, Saturday, June 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Xhaka was the player of the match in Switzerland’s win over Hungary

“My bags were packed. The passports were out,” he later revealed when discussing that day against Crystal Palace that resulted in him being stripped of the Arsenal captaincy. Instead, he stayed and became a driving force in the club’s revival under Mikel Arteta.

This past season, Xhaka won the double with Bayer Leverkusen, surely the outstanding accomplishment in European football in 2024. At 31 years old, the boy famously trusted with his parents’ house keys as a kid has finally grown up. A late bloomer, after all.

Arteta began the process. Xhaka had won back the crowd long before he departed, scoring twice in his final appearance for the club and being serenaded from the field. Reimagined as a No 8 on the left of midfield, it better suited the strengths of his game.

The Arsenal coach recognised that while the statuesque Xhaka has the physique to dominate midfield, he is at his best with the ball at his feet in the attacking half of the field rather than focusing on shutting down the opposition when his team are without it.

At Euro 2024, only Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich have completed more passes in the final third. And Xhaka has been doing it for Switzerland not the highly fancied host nation. If that sample is small, consider that he has been doing it all year for Leverkusen.

Granit Xhaka's passing stats for Bayer Leverkusen in the 2023/24 Bundesliga season
Xhaka’s passing stats for Bayer Leverkusen in the 2023/24 Bundesliga season

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Xhaka heaped praise on Xabi Alonso after Bayer Leverkusen won the title

Xhaka was the catalyst for Xabi Alonso’s remarkable side when in possession. Not only did he complete more passes than any other player in the Bundesliga last season but he also topped those charts in the opposition half and the final third of the pitch as well.

Nobody played more accurate forward passes than Xhaka, 708 of them, moving Leverkusen into the final third on a league-high 440 occasions. His influence on his side is illustrated by the fact that he featured in more pass sequences than anyone else too.

skysports granit xhaka bayer leverkusen 6596949

“He has had a huge impact on the team since day one,” says Alonso, adding simply: “If you have good midfielders, you play better.” Leverkusen’s sporting director Simon Rolfes sees it much the same. “He is an exceptional player. He sets the tempo for our team.”

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Watch Xhaka’s stunning strike for Bayer Leverkusen against Werder Bremen

In his own words, Xhaka was signed to “stabilise this young team”. – to be Alonso’s eyes and ears on the pitch. He is already taking his coaching badges. And while he stops short of seeing himself as a father figure, his importance to club and country is obvious.

Rolfes refers to his influence “on and off the field” – something that Switzerland coach Murat Yakin had in mind when calling him “top class” and a “role model” following his standout performance against Germany, in which they were just minutes from victory.

DFB-Pokal, Season 2023/2024, Final 1.FC Kaiserslautern - Bayer 04 Leverkusen Granit Xhaka scores the goal to make it 1-0 versus goalkeeper Julian Krahl
Xhaka scored the only goal of the game in the cup final against Kaiserslautern

Leverkusen's Granit Xhaka lifts the trophy after the German Soccer Cup final match between 1. FC Kaiserslautern and Bayer Leverkusen at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, May 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Xhaka lifts the trophy as Bayer Leverkusen completed the double in Berlin

What happens next? Switzerland have reached the quarter-final of a major tournament on four occasions but never gone further. If history repeats, Xhaka can return to his club with head held high, proud of his summer efforts. And yet, there is another scenario.

Vinicius Junior is odds-on favourite to win the Ballon d’Or with Jude Bellingham next in the betting. Kylian Mbappe and Toni Kroos are the other contenders and international silverware for any of the four this summer would put them in pole position for the award.

But if it is Switzerland, now three wins from history and in the more inviting half of this Euro 2024 draw, then can any of football’s superstars truly claim to have had a better season than Xhaka? Unlikely glory with Leverkusen and now starring for his country.

It was Xhaka who scored the only goal in the German Cup Final in Berlin to complete the double. If Switzerland somehow find their way back to the Olympiastadion next weekend, this season of all seasons for Granit Xhaka could have a sensational ending.

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