LONDON (Reuters) - If any player epitomises the unifying impact Mikel Arteta has had on Arsenal since he took charge in December it is Granit Xhaka who has gone from a target of fan venom to a key cog in midfield.
When the Swiss ripped off his shirt as he reacted angrily to Arsenal fans booing him against Crystal Palace in October it seemed his days at the club might be numbered.
It also pointed to the general malaise affecting the Premier League side and which eventually cost Unai Emery his job.
Fast forward nine months though and Xhaka was superb in Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City, and in the win over champions Liverpool a few days earlier.
Arteta has instilled a new team ethic at Arsenal and Xhaka has clearly bought into it — working tirelessly in front of his defence at Wembley on Saturday to help keep City at bay.
“The challenge with Granit was to convince him that there was still a place for him here,” Arteta told reporters on Monday ahead on the eve of the visit to Aston Villa.
“I had big belief in him and that things can turn around pretty quickly in this industry.
“He had to send the right messages.”
Arsenal’s enigmatic Brazilian defender David Luiz is another player transformed in recent weeks, and Arteta said both are examples of how players can grow out of adversity.
“They are two players that are worth spending time with and giving confidence because I know how professional they are, how much they want to be successful at this football club and how much they care,” Arteta added.
“Sometimes they react or have difficulties, they really suffer. When that happens, these players deserve support and back up. They are showing with their performances that they have worked to be here, and you can see how they fight for the club.”
With an FA Cup final against Chelsea on Aug. 1 to look forward to, Arsenal potentially have two routes into the Europa League. Winning their last two games would also give them an outside chance of achieving that through their league position.
They are ninth in the table ahead of Tuesday’s game at relegation-threatened Villa, five points behind sixth-placed arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
“I wanted to get to this point with options and clearly we have options,” Arteta said. “It (a Europa League spot) is not in our hands at the moment and we knew that was going to be very difficult but we are going to give it a go, try to win both games and wait to see.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris