Mikel Arteta praised the influence of Granit Xhaka in helping Arsenal carve out their surprise title challenge this season but would not be drawn on whether the midfielder will still be at the club next season.
Xhaka has been a key figure alongside Thomas Partey in Arteta’s midfield this campaign, becoming a respected leadership presence and redeeming himself in the eyes of supporters after a public spat in 2019 threatened his place in the squad.
Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen have been heavily linked with a move for the 30-year-old, whose contract is due to expire at the end of next season.
He spent four years in Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach before Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal in 2016 for around £30million, but he endured a strained relationship with fans culminating in a confrontation as he was substituted during a game against Crystal Palace at the Emirates four years ago.
Then manager Unai Emery subsequently stripped him of the captaincy and his time at the club looked to be over.
But this season has seen a full rehabilitation for the Switzerland international as Arsenal ran Manchester City to the final weeks of the season for the title and returned to the Champions League after a six-year absence.
“For me (he’s been) crucial – really, really important at every level, and I think for the team and the club as well,” said Arteta, who said he would not comment on the futures of any of his side until after Sunday’s Premier League finale against Wolves.
“In the great moments like this season he has had, and in the difficult ones, because I think we have become a better club and better people and we have understood certain situations much better than just judging them.
“I think the club and a lot of people have done really good to dig in there to understand what happened emotionally and why those reactions were happening.
“Having the courage to say, ‘OK, turn around to the situation, face it’. There’s going to be a moment of doubt but if you believe in what you’re doing and you go face-to-face and you say what you feel, normally things work out pretty well.
“When you look how he behaved. We have some others who are absolutely a joy for those boys, the way they treat them. And he has an honest and unique willingness to help them. It’s not an act, it’s genuine.
“It makes the difference. We have four or five in that dressing room who have been critical for these players to grow, to have the right support, to inspire them and in the right moment to challenge them when it’s necessary to get them in the right direction when they are tempted to go somewhere else. You need that in that dressing room.”
Arteta said he would take the time to recharge himself after a draining campaign in which Arsenal led the table for 248 days before slipping away, a record for any side that has failed to win the title.
The team were eight points clear as recently as early April before a string of draws against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton weakened their advantage, allowing Manchester City to finally overtake them with a thumping 4-1 win at the Etihad.
The manager predicted the challenge will be even tougher if Arsenal aim to prevent City from winning a record fourth-straight crown, but planned to switch off from football for a period over the close season.
“I have the necessary energy to go into the last game and really feel again that connection, play well, win the game and finish the season in the right way,” he said.
“Then I have another kind of energy without that being so physical and so demanding and being there every single day but to have the time to think as well; to plan what we want to do, to try execute it, but to recharge my batteries as well next to my family, next to my friends, on a beautiful beach just not thinking about football.
“It’s very important (to be able to switch off). Me personally I have to get better at that but I think I have some good help around.”