Throwback Thursday: Memorable Premier League displays from Arsenal pair Xhaka and Saka
Arsenal will likely go into the final weekend of the Premier League season deflated after their poor finish to the campaign, which has seen them win only two of their last eight games and Manchester City crowned champions.
Despite this, the Gunners will head into their match with Wolves with optimism for next season after what has largely been a positive campaign, finishing second and securing Champions League football for the first time since the 2016/17 season.
Only two players from the current Arsenal squad were playing in that season; Mohamed Elneny and one of the arrivals in the 2016 summer transfer window, Granit Xhaka.
After a productive 2022/23, helping Mikel Arteta’s side to their highest finish in seven years, Xhaka is rumoured to be nearing the exit door at the Emirates, with a move to Bayer Leverkusen seemingly on the cards.
For Throwback Thursday this week, we look back at Xhaka’s best rated Premier League performance in red and white ahead of what could be his final outing this weekend, and which was also a significant day for one of Arsenal’s brightest stars, who this week committed his future to the club.
It was New Year’s Day 2019 and Arsenal came into a London derby on a poor run of form having only won two of previous six in the league, and were on the back of a 5-1 hammering by the-then league leaders Liverpool at Anfield. They sat five points off fourth-placed Chelsea coming into this one, whom they were due to play later on that same month, as they looked to remain in the race for a Champions League spot.
The opposition, Claudio Ranieri’s Fulham, came into this game in the bottom three, having lost 12 of their 20 games up until that point in their Premier League campaign.
The game was fairly even enough to start with. Arsenal, as they would have been expected, dominating the proceedings in way of possession (67.4%) after 20 minutes.
But midway through the first half, and it was the Gunners that did take the lead and it was Xhaka himself who scored the goal with a simple finish. Alex Iwobi's chipped cross from the left found the Swiss international in space in front of the goal, where he finished with ease into the bottom right corner.
Arsenal went on to win the game 4-1, despite some nervy moments, especially when Fulham halved the deficit. Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also found the net for Unai Emery’s side, while Aboubakar Kamara set up a potential comeback in the 69th minute for the Cottagers.
To top off a near perfect start to 2019 for Arsenal, Bukayo Saka, with just under 10 minutes to play, came on for his Premier League debut at just 17 years of age, which meant he was the first player born in 2001 to play a game in the Premier League. Flash forward to the present day, and Saka (7.37) is Arsenal’s best rated player in the league this season, and perhaps Mikel Arteta’s most important player, with the England international signing a new long-term contract this week to cement his future in N5.
For Xhaka, though he only directly contributed to the opening goal of this match, he did put in a fine display, which saw him return a WhoScored rating of 8.72, enough to see him earn the man of the match award, and which is, to this day, his best rated Premier League performance. He did so by having three shots, which only Aubameyang (6) could better, registering the most touches (101), registering three key passes, which only Kolasinac (4) could better, winning three aerial duels, making three tackles, making the joint most interceptions (3) and playing the most accurate passes (62).
Though most fans will likely point to other matches in Xhaka’s seven years in north London as his personal highlights, such as wonder strikes against Manchester United and his goal against Tottenham this season, to name two, this performance against Fulham was one that summed up the sort of player he is, being heavily involved in all areas of the pitch, and offering support in both defence and attack.
Given the positive news this week of Saka’s contract, looking back at this game, which set the 21-year-old on his way to the player he is today, it seems significant to also reference Xhaka, who has been a loyal servant to the club and gave his best rated performance in that London derby.
As an ever-present looks to say goodbye to Arsenal fans on Sunday, another has dedicated the next few years to pushing the club back to the top.