Arsenal have shown plenty of growth this season, especially in the case of Granit Xhaka, but Sunday's meeting with Crystal Palace can provide another reminder of how far the Swiss international has come under Mikel Arteta.

Back in 2019, Xhaka appeared to have waved goodbye to any sign of a Gunners future after a confrontation with home support. The incident cost the former Borussia Monchengladbach man his status as club captain under Unai Emery, but these days his stock couldn't be much higher with the Arsenal faithful.

Plenty has been made of Xhaka's role as a senior player helping a young squad push for the Premier League title this season. With each mention, though, his journey over the last three-and-a-bit years comes further into focus.

After Arsenal narrowly missed out on a top four finish in Emery's first season, also reaching the final of the Europa League, some will have had high hopes for year two. Back-to-back wins to start the season added to that optimism, but the Gunners were down in fifth by the time Palace came to town, having lost their previous game to newly-promoted Sheffield United.

Just 10 minutes in, things were looking up once more, with centre-backs Sokratis and David Luiz helping the home side go two up. Luka Milivojevic halved the deficit from the penalty spot, though, and Jordan Ayew's second-half goal ensured the game ended all-square.

It was the second time Arsenal had thrown away a two goal lead in the space of six weeks, with Watford the other opponents to battle back. Xhaka would become the story, though, thanks to his reaction to being withdrawn.

How important is Granit Xhaka to Arsenal? Have your say in the comments section

As he left the field to a chorus of boos from his own supporters, Xhaka cupped his hand to his ear. Words were also exchanged between the Swiss and the home fans, including at least one which appeared to be of the four-letter variety, ensuring manager Emery would be forced to answer questions on the matter after the game.

"He's wrong but we are going to speak inside about that situation," Emery said. "I want to be calm but, really, he was wrong in this action."

"We are working with every player about how to deal with the pressure. The reaction was wrong and we will discuss it with him.

"I have had similar situations. When supporters are criticising us we need to stand up and stay calm. They are the reason for our work. We need to stay calm when they are applauding and when they are criticising us."

Later, the Spanish manager would shed more light on Xhaka's emotional response to the events. “He is now devastated – devastated and sad,” the manager told the media on the Tuesday after the game.

“We spoke yesterday and also on Sunday night. This morning he trained as normal with the group but he is devastated and sad about the situation.

“He knows he was wrong. He was wrong and he feels it inside very deeply. But that is normal as a human. You need, and every player needs, the supporters’ support.”

Despite the apparent contrition from Xhaka, though, he was left out of three straight games before formally being stripped of the captaincy. "I needed to make a decision and now it is closed," Emery explained. "I told first Xhaka and then the captains and for me it’s finished."

When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang succeeded Xhaka as Arsenal captain, few would have expected the Gunners' number 34 to last longer than the Gabon striker in north London. However, as Aubameyang's star fell and he left amid a falling out with current boss Mikel Arteta, Xhaka was still around and on his way to becoming one of the longest-serving players at the club.

West Ham captain Mark Noble sympathised with Xhaka at the time, but suggested it might be time for the player to tell his agent to find him a new club. Indeed, as Xhaka himself would later admit, there were moments when he came very close to moving on, only for a change of manager to make the difference.

Emery only lasted a few more weeks, with Arsenal sacking their boss after dropping to eighth in the table. Mikel Arteta came in as his permanent successor, after a brief stint with Freddie Ljungberg as caretaker, and Xhaka was convinced to stay put.

"When Mikel [Arteta] was appointed in December, I told him that I wanted to leave," Xhaka told The Players' Tribune in 2022. "He understood completely. We had a second chat a few days later, and when I went in, I had talked it through with my wife. Our suitcases were literally placed by the door.

"When I have made a decision like that, it is very difficult to change my mind. But then Mikel began to talk about how I was a big part of his plans. I liked his warmth. He was honest, straight. Clear plans. I felt I could trust him. He told me to give him six months to prove me wrong, and then if I still wanted to leave, no problem.

"Normally I spend a lot of time making these decisions. I talk to everyone around me, I weigh up the pros and cons. But that day I broke my own rules. I told Mikel, 'O.K.'"

Since then, he has barely looked back. After sitting out three straight league games in the light of that Palace incident, he has never missed more than two in a row under Arteta.

The fact that Xhaka was considered as a potential captain after Aubameyang's exit says a great deal about his importance, but he has also shown how he can be an influence even without the armband. Now 30 years of age, he has started all but two of Arsenal's league games this term and came off the bench in the other two - including a late introduction ahead of an even later Reiss Nelson winner against Bournemouth.

He has taken a more advanced role this season, helping transform Arsenal from Champions League contenders to title challengers, This also owes a bit to Arteta, who opened up on the conversations the pair had over the summer but stressed the role the player played in making the necessary changes.

"I spoke to him at the end of the season and said, ‘I need to unlock something in your brain because you’re so comfortable and confident playing in this area that you have forgot what is actually going to win us the game and the team now demands somebody here, so unless you unlock that I’m going to have to do something about it’," Arteta said in December 2022.

"He took it straight away. He’s a very intelligent player, he came to pre-season fitter than ever, slimmer than ever, and he knew that if we wanted to take the team to a different level we had to change his role. He knew that was coming.

"We believed he has those qualities, those qualities were there to be exploited and they were hiding. The team needed those qualities very much."

Xhaka returned to Arsenal's starting XI last weekend against Fulham, playing his part in a dominant 3-0 win. He then scored his fourth goal of the season on Thursday, only for the Gunners to bow out of the Europa League on penalties.

While there have been plenty of positives this term, a performance at home to Crystal Palace would - you imagine - feel particularly sweet for Xhaka. Both of Arsenal's home games against the Eagles since that 2019 clash have also ended all-square, but what they would give for another crucial three points as they look to move one step closer to the title.

2023-03-19T07:07:03Z dg43tfdfdgfd