May 2016. Granit Xhaka
completed his £30 million move to Arsenal, from Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach. At the time, he was a high-profile, expensive signing, expected to bolster a side without a natural defensive midfielder. Arsene Wenger was entering the latter stages of his time at the helm, and was being criticised for lacking a Patrick Vieira-style, all-guns-blazing defensive player in the heart of the team. Xhaka was supposedly the answer.
Fast forward to the present, and he’s Arsenal’s longest-serving player within the starting eleven, dividing the fanbase throughout his tenure. But he’s almost become a fan favourite over the last year or so. And is still a crucial leader, with his role in the side undisputed. Let’s take a look at why.
Let us go straight into the famous moment. October 2019, Granit Xhaka storms off the pitch against Crystal Palace
at the Emirates, throwing his armband aside and allegedly swearing at sections of fans. What follows is a barrage of abuse on social media (which absurdly and abhorrently, still takes place), affecting the player and his family.
No matter how Xhaka the footballer is perceived, both him and the fans went through a difficult patch for a while. But even his biggest critics are now on the Swiss’s bandwagon. He’s completely turned it around at the club, owing much of this success to manager Mikel Arteta.
Freedom under Arteta
Before the ex-Arsenal captain took charge of the side, Xhaka was being tipped for a January switch to Italy or even back to Germany. Recent interviews with the player confirm he was planning to quit the club after relationship turmoil with the fans. But the appointment of Arteta, luckily just before the January window opened, gave those plans a rethink.
Xhaka was made a crucial part of the gunner’s midfield under their new manager, starting Arteta’s first league game against Bournemouth and continuing to stay a consistent figure since then.
Under previous managers, particularly Wenger, he was used as a sole defensive midfielder, or the deeper player within a double pivot. Clearly, the club had failed to do their research on his favoured role. Part of the reason for his mislabelled and underrated profile. But under Arteta, he immediately moved more advanced, dictating the middle of the park. And now the Swiss is playing as a number eight within this Arsenal team. Quite the turnaround.
Clear footballing quality
Let’s look at his quality. The two most notable attributes he possesses are passing quality, and phenomenal ability to win control within transitions. The latter is one area Arsenal may struggle to replace if they move on from Xhaka. There’s a reason he’s the only player alongside Saka to stay in the starting eleven during Arteta’s tenure.
And there are so many misconceptions. “Reckless and lacks discipline”. Well if we look at the fact he’s never been sent off for two yellow cards, surely that represents incredible discipline. That’s the exact definition of discipline. Now there have been reckless moments, and too many red cards. But two in the last six Premier League seasons isn’t the character he’s made out to be within the media. Remember that half these dismissals have been unfair due to the reputation of his character amongst referees. He’s been completely misjudged the entire time he’s played football in England.
This ability has been best packaged in the last few months, where Xhaka has been forced to adapt his role yet has found perhaps his best ever form. As part of the two number eights, ahead of Thomas Partey, he has license to move forward, but still has to remain disciplined.
The goal he scored last week showed this in a nutshell, and evidenced his superb adaptation. Imagine if Jorginho, Fabinho, or Rodri were moved gradually forward in their midfield positions and roles, until they ended up as an advanced number eight. They would show significant quality if they were able to adapt. That’s exactly what Xhaka’s done.
Why move on?
The obvious question here is, why would Arsenal choose to move on from Xhaka? Why is he considered the weak link in the side?
Well, the number eight role isn’t his natural role. He’s adapted well, but a more proficient attacking or creative player could surely unlock this side’s potential even further. We’ll have to see when and who Arteta chooses to replace Xhaka with. But there’s no question he can’t be sold. In this young squad, his leadership skills and character are absolutely vital. Losing the Swiss would be nothing short of a disaster.
Phenomenally underrated, fantastic character and footballer – it’s a great shame he hasn’t received any of the plaudits he’s deserved. Arsenal would no doubt severely miss Xhaka if they moved on from him in the near future. The club will be counting their lucky stars that he didn’t move on in the winter of 2020. Now Arsenal’s vice-captain, the fans and club know, for intents and purposes, he is the captain and leader in the dressing room, even without the physical armband.
This article was written by @Footy_Lens