There aren’t too many people who know Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka better than Johan Djourou.
Former Gunners defender Djourou played alongside Xhaka for Switzerland between 2011 and 2018 with the duo forging a close friendship away from the pitch.
It means that Djourou has watched Xhaka’s development at close quarters since the midfielder made his international debut against England in June 2011, with the 30-year-old now developing into a leader both on and off the pitch for the national team.
Xhaka will lead Switzerland at this year’s World Cup – having taken over the captaincy from Stephan Lichtsteiner following his retirement in 2020 – and will be key to their chances of making it out of Group D.
Switzerland kick off their World Cup journey against Cameroon – which is live on talkSPORT2 – before facing one of the tournament’s favourites Brazil and then Serbia, in what looks to be a tricky group on paper.
Xhaka’s personality has always impressed Djourou, who revealed that the Arsenal midfielder has always been viewed as a leader within the Switzerland dressing room.
Speaking exclusively to talkSPORT, Djourou said: “Granit is a natural leader. He was a guy that always trained to learn. Even at his young age, you could see that he wanted to do things well. Everything that he was doing like playing or winning the ball or learning or the relationship he had with his teammates was always well thought. He’s a really clever guy.
“I can only say good things about him because when he came into the national team, we really connected straight away and since then, he’s still a friend today. I’m very happy for him because that shows the big personality and character that he has because I think everyone wrote him off.
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“Even without being the captain, he will always pick the players up. At the time, we had [Stephan] Lichtsteiner as our captain. Granit was the third [choice captain] I think and Granit was always viewed as captain because he would always take the lead, he would always train like he played and never hid.
“He would take accountability for anything that he did, even if it was wrong or even if he made a mistake he would put his hand up. For me, that’s a captain. A captain doesn’t always need to speak, but he needs to show himself.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Xhaka at Arsenal, though, with the midfielder previously having a fractious relationship with the club’s supporters.
Matters came to a head when Xhaka reacted angrily to being booed off by Arsenal fans when he was substituted against Crystal Palace in October 2019 and was subsequently stripped of the captaincy by Unai Emery.
Criticism has also been previously aimed at Xhaka for his discipline on the field and it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before he quit the Emirates following Emery’s decision to strip him of the captaincy.
However, three years later and things couldn’t be more different, with Xhaka in the form of his Arsenal career under Mikel Arteta this season.
The midfielder has been instrumental in Arsenal’s rise to the top of the Premier League table – scoring four times in 20 appearances in all competitions– and Djourou believes Gunners’ boss Arteta deservers plenty of credit for Xhaka’s reinvention.
“The big input or change [in Xhaka] is down to Arteta because if Mikel doesn’t believe in him and give him the chance to show his worth, Granit is out of the door,” Djourou explains.
“There was no question about it. That shows, again, a manager needs time to put his ideas across [and] a manager needs time for the players to understand the vision and philosophy and Granit took his [opportunity] straight away. Sometimes we tend to forget that players or footballers or athletes are not robots. We are human [and] we have feelings.
“When something bad happens like against Crystal Palace, of course Granit was hurt and he wanted to leave. But when Mikel saw in him the worth that everyone or me or other managers saw in him, that gave him the boost. But then again, you have to go out there and perform.
“What we should be impressed by and what we should not forget is that when you’re down, a great leader will never stay down for long. You see so many players in the game that have difficult experiences and never make it back. But he did.
“He did it in a great way because all the stadium was against him [and] all the fans were against him that day. To do what he did, of course, was not nice to throw that shirt on the floor. As a fan, you have the right to be irritated and the right to be frustrated and the right to be angry. But, to come back and to explain [yourself] – because he did that as well – [deserves great credit].
“Sometimes, as a human being, we have emotions. There was not only that, there were other things going on with social media. To take that on and to show your worth, you can only show your respect to the guy. I hope he continues.”
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