Taking responsibility comes naturally to Granit Xhaka. You would expect that of someone who became Borussia Mönchengladbach captain at just 22 last September. Yet even when he was only five years old back in Switzerland, his parents trusted him. His brother Taulant is 18 months older but, such was his habit of losing things, it was always Granit who was tasked with looking after the house keys.
These days you’ll find him protecting the ball in Gladbach’s midfield. He sits deep, picking off passes long and short with his left foot, and playing with a tenacity that very much suits his role as captain. When he’s without the ball, you’ll find Xhaka relentlessly hunting it down. If you’re unlucky enough to be an opponent, that means you could be sent flying by a meaty tackle. If you’re fortunate enough to be a team-mate, just look up and you’ll see Xhaka offering to take the ball off your hands.
Goalkeeper Yann Sommer is a team-mate at both club and international level, rooming with the midfielder when Gladbach are on their travels. When Sommer has the ball on the pitch, his fellow Swiss is the player who comes deep to get it.
There have been quite a few occasions this season when Xhaka has had an opponent five metres either side of him just outside his own penalty area but has still demanded the ball. Sometimes he’ll even clap his hands above his head for added urgency, so keen is he to move it up field and build an attack. He’s more likely to initiate the move than to create the chance itself – Saturday brought his first and only assist of the Bundesliga season.
But Arsenal and other interested parties should beware; Xhaka’s enthusiasm for the ball can lead to a loss of discipline when he doesn’t have it. “He likes red cards,” smirked Sommer whilst sitting next to Xhaka at a recent press conference. In the past season, his room-mate has been shown three red cards. His four years at Gladbach show a penchant for bookings too, collecting a total of 29 in the Bundesliga.
This partly comes from the way Xhaka likes to make his mark. Saying that he merely protects the defence doesn’t quite capture how he diligently patrols in front of them. His disciplinary record shows it can be a touch overzealous.
Take Gladbach’s home game against Ingolstadt for example last November, where he made his first foul after just 19 seconds. The Swiss then allowed himself to be wound up as he and his team-mates struggled to break down their organised opponents. This culminated in Xhaka being sent off for the second time this season, before a third red came against Darmstadt in December when he hoofed Peter Niemeyer off the ball. He had been provoked but his reaction, just in front of the team benches, was stupid.
Xhaka has pointed out that it is the smaller teams that try to wind him up but his reactions have led to suspensions in bigger matches, when his team need him most. He missed Gladbach’s home fixture against Dortmund this season, for instance. That was one of four defeats in six games which the tough-tackling midfielder was banned for, indicating his influence.
He vowed in a January interview with respected Gladbach fanzine Torfabrik that it wouldn’t happen again. Only one yellow card has followed in 13 games since, which suggests Xhaka is able to learn from difficult moments.
In his first season at Gladbach, he wasn’t a regular. Xhaka admitted to club magazine Fohlen Echo that he was also a little too honest in the press, so in the summer of 2013 he told himself to “shut up and concentrate on his performance”.
You’ll still see him in the tunnel after a game fronting up. The difference is he does it as captain and as a cult hero at the club after a key role in back-to-back Champions League qualifications. A winning goal in the derby against Cologne in 2015 didn’t do him much harm either. No wonder there’s a section of Gladbach fans who cry “Football God” when the 23-year-old’s name is read out.
The scene was different for his father when he was just a year younger than Xhaka is now back in 1986. Ragip Xhaka was a political prisoner in Kosovo after being arrested for taking part in a student demonstration against the Communist regime. He spent three-and-a-half years behind bars, with his wife Elmaze only allowed to visit him every 15 days. After groundwork laid by Amnesty International, Ragip was freed in 1990 before he and Elmaze moved to Basel where they had Taulant and Granit.
Xhaka senior was also a promising young footballer in his native Kosovo but a bad leg break when he was 17 ended his hopes of becoming a professional before he went on to become a gardener and, eventually, his son’s agent.
There was a time early in Granit’s career too, back in Switzerland, when he wanted to give up football altogether. Having joined FC Basel’s academy when he was ten, he damaged his cruciate ligaments aged 15, but found solace in a six-month internship as an office assistant. “It was an important phase which has completely changed my life,” he told Fohlen Echo.
Soon after, Xhaka was part of the Swiss team that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009. Just over a year later, he made his debut for Basel aged 17 in August 2010 – six months earlier than his older brother Taulant. Two Swiss Super League titles and Champions League football followed. Two years later Premier League clubs came calling, but Xhaka chose Gladbach instead.
The elder Xhaka brother is now a key player for Basel, but he could face his brother at Euro 2016. When they were younger, Granit chose to play for Switzerland whilst Taulant (pictured below) opted for Albania. “At the time [when I decided], Albania wasn’t interested in me but Switzerland was,” explained Granit in April. “For my brother, it was the other way round. So we made our decisions straight away.”
With Kosovo granted UEFA status at the beginning of May, they could yet play for the same nation one day. As it stands, a knee injury Taulant suffered at the beginning of the month has put the brothers’ potential duel at the Euros in doubt. Granit’s future at Gladbach is also up in the air.
He told Torfabrik earlier this year of his childhood dream to play in the Premier League, “whether for a minute or a hundred games”, and a move to Arsenal looks to be closing in. On the pitch, that won’t benefit Gladbach and especially Mo Dahoud, the 20-year-old midfield prodigy who has benefitted immensely from having Xhaka by his side in his first full season.
Dahoud is some way from being the finished article and, in truth, so is Xhaka. Along with his problematic disciplinary record, his decision making on the ball can be questionable at times. But should his next step be the Premier League, given the way he’s dealt with what’s come before him in the past, you’d back Xhaka to conquer it.