Granit Xhaka is back in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen after seven years in the English Premier League with Arsenal. A Switzerland international with a wand of a left foot, bundesliga.com has five interesting facts on the former Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder.
1) A junior world champion
Xhaka’s first taste of football came at the age of four when he was taken to a training session of local club Concordia Basel. By the time he was 11 he’d joined the academy of the city’s giants FC Basel, where he broke into the reserves a few months after his 16th birthday. With less than a season under his belt, Xhaka had his first piece of major silverware, and it was a big one.
While Switzerland had reached the semi-finals of the UEFA U17 European Championship in summer 2009, of which Xhaka featured in all four games, the Alpine nation went on to secure the FIFA U17 World Cup in November.
Xhaka started all seven matches as the Swiss went unbeaten en route to beating hosts Nigeria 1-0 in the final, which included an extra-time win over a Germany side that included current Eintracht Frankfurt man Mario Götze and later Gladbach teammate Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The midfielder also netted his only goal of the tournament in a 4-3 group win over Japan.
Watch: Granit Xhaka's best Bundesliga goals
Fast-tracked into the U21 side, Xhaka went close to claiming Euro honours just two year later, going all the way to the final again before coming undone against the all-conquering Spain side of the era.
2) The young Schweinsteiger
Going from U17 level to the senior national team within three years, winning his first cap at 18 years and eight months, made it clear that Xhaka was one of Switzerland’s best up-and-coming players.
Coming through at Basel just after Xherdan Shaqiri, there was debate about which of the pair was the country’s premier talent. They both left the club for the Bundesliga in 2012 with Shaqiri heading to Bayern Munich and Xhaka to Gladbach, yet for many it was the Foals who had done the better business.
His coach for the national team, a certain Ottmar Hitzfeld who won seven Bundesliga titles and two UEFA Champions Leagues across spells with Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, once described Xhaka as the “young Schweinsteiger” for his passing ability in midfield, which included an 85 per cent completion rate in 2015/16 - his last campaign with the Foals.
3) Sibling rivalry
The story of the Xhaka family is both complex and fascinating. Born to Albanian parents from Serbia who later lived in what is now Kosovo, Granit is a typical example of a child of the Balkan War.
Born in Basel after his parents had moved to Switzerland in 1990 just months following his father Ragip’s release from prison after a student protest against the Yugoslavian government, both Xhaka brothers, Granit and older sibling Taulant, were eligible to represent a number of nations.
When Kosovo were granted full FIFA membership, there were reports Xhaka could feature for the country but he published an open letter stating his participation at Euro 2016 with Switzerland had disqualified him from representing the young nation.
In the eight years since he made his senior debut for the Swiss against England, he has won 113 caps. One of those, the opening group game at Euro 2016 in France, made history as he lined up against brother Taulant, who had chosen to represent Albania.
It was the first time two brothers had faced off in the competition as mother Eli cheered on the pair from the stands in Lens wearing a half-and-half T-shirt blending the Swiss and Albanian flags. It was Granit’s Switzerland that took the spoils with a 1-0 win.
4) Loves a banger
As a predominantly defensive midfielder charged with keeping the ball moving, goals are not exactly Xhaka’s bread and butter. But when he does decide to hit one with his left boot, they stay hit.
Of 33 senior club goals for Basel, Gladbach and Arsenal, nine of those were recorded as either a long-range shot or direct free-kick.
Yet for a player once nicknamed “Little Einstein” for his passion for science, he also knows how to use his head and has netted three club goals that way. One of those was an injury-time derby winner for Gladbach against Cologne, while he scored one each in his first two games as Borussia captain in 2015/16. He's also successfully converted three of four penalties as a pro.
It’s a sight that will horrify footballing purists, but if Xhaka has his way he will wear his customary No.34 kit when he rocks up in the German capital. Apart from his first two seasons at Arsenal, the midfielder has sported the uncommon number his entire career and made it his own.
“That was my first professional number at Basel,” Xhaka explained in an interview ahead of his move to London. “It’s even tattooed on my back.”
Watch: Gladbach’s No.34 ran the length of the pitch to celebrate his derby winner
Perhaps one of the first things he will at in Leverkusen before even getting to the training ground will be the squad list, skipping past a whole raft of numbers before seeing empty slots between No.32 Ayman Azhil and No.35 Joshua Eze.
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