With 44 minutes gone, Arsenal 1-0 up and producing a performance of rare verve and energy, Granit Xhaka took a step back and stood completely still, staring at the top right-hand corner of the Chelsea goal.
Bukayo Saka had been fouled 10 yards from the intersection of penalty box and penalty arc. A free-kick for Arsenal was reward for Saka’s fine, driving performance. Above all it looked as if it would be a chance to run down the clock on the half.
Chelsea set up a dutiful four-man wall. Xhaka paced back, lining his left foot up with the right-hand corner. There was no disguise. The ball was only ever heading towards that spot in front of the empty Clock End, with its branded tarpaulins, its inspirational messages and the rather hopeful club motto.
Victory through harmony: meet Granit. What a strange player Xhaka has been for Arsenal. For an unexceptional, largely pedestrian midfielder, the some-time captain has induced a startlingly extreme range of emotional responses.
Does anybody even know his best position yet? Six and half years ago in São Paulo Xhaka produced a masterful display against Lionel Messi’s Argentina as a holding midfielder. In the Premier League he has looked like a poorly programmed robot trying to master the role.
Something more creative perhaps? Xhaka may enjoy standing there looking solemn and potent over free‑kicks, but this is a triumph of hope over the cold reality of one league goal since March 2019. He averages three assists a year.
So, leadership qualities then? Hmm. We remember the dust-ups, the funks and fallings-out, the match-turning goofs. Xhaka had only just returned to the team at the Emirates after a red-card against Burnley so witless (strangling Ashley Westwood: where can this really lead, Granit?) it left some supporters demanding a public apology.
Hair-tearing frustration leavened by odd bumps of hope: this has been the tone of Xhaka’s Arsenal career. And yet, it has been four and a half years now, almost 200 games and a couple of FA Cups.
In many ways this has been the Age of Xhaka at Arsenal, with its trapped rage, its bursts of stalled progress, from the dog days of late Wenger, to Mikel Arteta’s attempts to inject his own untried urgency into a group of left-over players.
And now here was Xhaka redux, walking forward at an angle and striking the ball with a startling purity, watching it rise over the end of the wall in a flat arc, curling away from the left hand of Édouard Mendy and into the corner of the net.
Xhaka ran away not looking that surprised or even that pleased, perhaps wishing, for the first time since lockdown, for the catharsis of home crowd communion.
But let’s not pretend here. It seems unlikely this will mark the dawning of a glorious second age of Granit. But it will perhaps stand as one of the great moments of Xhaka’s time at the club, given the pressure of the occasion. Who knows, with a timely, roll-the-dice appearance of good Granit, he may just have done his manager and this team the greatest favour of his Arsenal career.
There were green shoots here, and some hope in this performance. But it needed victory to seal the moment, albeit one that arrived via a roundabout route with a wonder‑goal from the embattled non-scoring midfielder, a saved penalty late on, an outrageous third goal from Saka and a slightly soft first‑half penalty won cleverly by Kieran Tierney.
And yet Arteta’s team did thoroughly deserve their 3-1 win, a victory for the energy and unscarred verve of the younger players in the starting XI.
When Arsenal beat these opponents in the FA Cup final in late summer there was a sense of something taking shape, the outline of a hard-working, fast-breaking, happy-looking team. Fast-forward five months and five key players from that day were either dropped, ill or unavailable – among them the record signing and the lavishly rewarded skipper. A feeling of progress has become 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 hard in the opening half hour.
Smith Rowe looked ready for a scrap in the centre of the pitch, a scurrying figure, socks drooping around his shins, always feeding the flanks. Saka, the most experienced of the three, was the key player in the game.
He is in his own way a kind of anti‑Xhaka. Saka’s greatest gift is his calm eye, his decision-making, his ability to pick the right pass, the right moment. If Arteta has a future at Arsenal it is these young, talented players who offer the most coherent vision of progress right now.
Their energy won this game. Xhaka, the man of this Arsenal age – for better or worse – gave it a gloss that may yet prove significant.