Granit Xhaka: Has Arsenal’s Most Divisive Player Become One Of Its Most Important?
Granit Xhaka. Mention his name to an Arsenal supporter and the response in return could be as varied as the Gunners’ performances this season. To some, he is simply not good enough; too slow to be effective as a box to box player, too defensively limited to be a true defensive midfielder and too error prone to be relied upon. To others, his work is criminally underrated; his toughness, vocal leadership and passing range are unique assets in this 2019 edition of the Arsenal midfield. They might argue that he does the little things that don’t show up on a stat line but can make a difference in whether Arsenal win or lose a match.
So which is the more accurate view? Or is the truth, as is often the case in debates over a player’s merits, somewhere in the middle? Is he an essential building block for the future of this Unai Emery led Arsenal side or is he a hindrance to the wage bill and to the potential growth of the club?
Misunderstood From The Off
Xhaka’s career at Arsenal got off to a promising start as he was integrated into a midfield double pivot with incumbent starters from the previous season Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. The duo had emerged the previous season as perhaps the most balanced midfield partnership the Gunners had fielded in quite some time, and their good form continued into the 2016/17 season despite a rough start to the Premier League campaign. Xhaka bided his time, being used as a substitute in the first few matches of the season. He scored a brilliant long range effort in the dying minutes of a 4-1 victory over Hull City, and he was rewarded with a start in the next match, a Champions League encounter against his former club Basel.
In limited action alongside Santi Cazorla, Xhaka looked primed to become a perfect partner to the diminutive Spaniard, with their combined passing ability from the base of midfield. This plan was scrapped however when Cazorla received what was first thought to be a minor knock to his Achilles in an October clash with Ludogarets in the Champions League, but later became an injury horror that prevented Cazorla from ever playing again in an Arsenal shirt. Forced into the starting XI alongside Coquelin, and with Arsene Wenger proclaiming that he had the engine and skill set to play as a box to box player, perception problems began to emerge.
Upon signing with the club, Xhaka was hailed by some as the no-nonsense defensive midfielder the Gunners had lacked for years. He arrived with a reputation as a solid, intelligent player, but one who had struggled with disciplinary issues at Gladbach. That reputation followed him into the Premier League where he committed several costly fouls that resulted in bookings, suspensions and scoring chances for the opposition. However, it was the initial impression fans had of him upon signing, and Wenger’s assessment of his role in the team that perhaps did more than any rash challenge to hurt his standing in the eyes of most Arsenal supporters.
By the time he was earning regular starter’s minutes in the team, fans had started to notice that their view of him as a player when he first signed on was perhaps not totally accurate. With fans expecting a rangy, tough shield in front of the back line, Xhaka struggled to become that player in the frenetic Premier League, taking a long time to acclimate to the pace of play in England. After his first red card in October, fans really began souring on the summer signing. His lack of pace was evident from the beginning, but he seemed to be making worse and worse mistakes defensively as the season wore on, and fans started to believe he was not the saviour of the midfield they had hoped.
An Apparent Plateau
Despite managing to avoid getting sent off during the 2017/18 season, Xhaka’s reputation as a plodding, rash tackler continued. However, a few costly mistakes also ensured a new, equally unflattering label would stick; he became known as an error prone player. Xhaka would finish the season officially with 3 errors leading to a goal in a highly subjective statistical category, but fans were less stringent in their assessments and claimed the real number was in fact much higher. In spite of these grumblings however, Arsene Wenger continued to make the Swiss international one of his first names on the team sheet every week, and Xhaka would end up starting every Premier League match over the course of the season. To those who had by this point written off Xhaka’s signing as bad business, it was yet more evidence of Wenger losing his touch, both on the transfer market and in his lineup selections. Surely, they thought, whichever man would go on to replace the Frenchman at the helm of the club would waste no time in cutting the £35 million signing loose.
New Manager, Same Story
The 2018/19 season started off with a wave of fresh optimism and a new look central midfield under the newly-named Head Coach Unai Emery. For Xhaka’s detractors, the time had finally come to bring his two year reign as a guaranteed starter in the side, and the additions of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira suggested they might be right. However, in spite of Guendouzi’s impressive pre-season performances and the late World Cup returns by both Xhaka and Torreira, there Xhaka was on match day 1, his name in its usual place at the heart of the team.
Even as Torreira earned his way into the starting XI and Guendouzi continued to capture the imaginations of Arsenal supporters with his impressive performances that defied his young age, Xhaka kept his place. Emery went further even than Wenger in expressing his trust in the midfielder as a run of injuries in defence saw the Spaniard turn to Xhaka to fill in at both left back and at centre back early in the season. Despite understandably inconsistent performances as a defender, Emery maintained his high praise of Xhaka, citing his intelligence, adaptability and commitment in the process.
Still Here, Still Important
While some fans have begun to warm towards Xhaka and his importance in the team, the sensational start to Premier League life of Lucas Torreira and the shocking ascendency of Guendouzi from one for the future to regular first team contributor in his brief time at the club have convinced many that it is only a matter of time before Xhaka is forced out of the starting XI. However, in spite of this commonly held belief, the stats suggest the Swiss midfielder is holding his own in Emery’s new-look midfield.
As evidenced by the chart above, Xhaka has been the most well-rounded player of Arsenal’s midfield trio. Perhaps most surprising considering his reputation as a mistake waiting to happen, he is dispossessed less often (tied with Torreira at 0.7 per match) and takes fewer unsuccessful touches than his fellow central midfielders. This is in spite of his relative lack of ability to evade pressuring opponents with quickness alone, and often Xhaka is marked tightly in an attempt to limit his passing effectiveness and force a mistake.
When delving further into more detailed passing stats, Xhaka separates himself even further. He attempts more than twice the number of long passes than his nearest teammate Guendouzi, and he is averaging 30 more passes per game than both Torreira and Guendouzi. His role as chief distributor of the midfield cannot be questioned, and for a team that has committed to building out from the back and relies on the centre backs and midfielders to recycle possession, it is an important one. His lower passing percentage than either partner can be explained in part by a greater average pass length and his principle responsibity to progress play into the opponent’s final third.
While it is hardly revolutionary to suggest Xhaka is the best passer in the Arsenal midfield, what is surprising is how well he has fared defensively this season compared to his partners. He is second only to Torreira in tackles per match, and actually just beats his Uruguayan teammate in interceptions per match. When considering how much attention Torreira has garnered for these two undeniable strengths to his game, Xhaka has stayed right with him for much of the campaign. He also blocks more shots and clears more attacks away than either teammate, suggesting his defensive positioning around the box has been fairly good. However, his poor timing in the tackle has not been fully eradicated from his game yet, and he is dribbled past more than Emery would perhaps like to see from his central midfielders.
A Position Battle Or A Starting Trio?
While Xhaka has been undeniably solid in Unai Emery’s first season, many are still convinced it is only a matter of time before Matteo Guendouzi eventually supplants him in the starting XI. However, such an occurrence becomes harder to predict when considering the sheer number of formations Emery has tried this season. While known for favouring a 4-2-3-1 in his career, this season has seen Emery deploy a myriad of combinations, at various points using a back four, a back three, a midfield diamond, a midfield duo, a one striker and a two striker formation. Recently, Emery has gravitated toward formations with a three man central midfield, and it appears this is something he could stick with heading into the home stretch of the season.
For now, the situation remains fluid, but what about the future? At 26, Xhaka is further along in his development curve than Torreira or Guendouzi, and he theoretically has less growing to do before reaching the peak of his powers. As can be seen above, Guendouzi has increasingly found success in areas that Xhaka also excels for the team at present . The young Frenchman has been on a stellar run of form lately, and he has equaled Xhaka’s contribution to buildup play and in the lead up to goals, which are incredibly important for a midfielder tasked with progressing play into the opponent’s half of the pitch.
That said, Guendouzi is far from the complete article. His defensive awareness and positioning are still hit or miss, and he struggles at times to see passes quickly and move the ball along on time and in rhythm. When playing together, Xhaka still spends a lot of time directing his less experienced teammate into more advantageous positions, something that is even more apparent to those sitting pitchside than those watching the television broadcast of the match. Unai Emery has selected all three midfielders increasingly often as the season has worn on, and their relative stability has been fortunate as he searches for solutions to a patchwork defence and an attack running low on natural width and creativity.
Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira are the future of the Arsenal midfield. Young, active and hungry, they are players fans will be proud to see carrying the Arsenal badge on their chests (hopefully) deep into the next decade. However, Granit Xhaka has continued to be nearly undroppable by every manager has has ever had, whether at Arsenal, in Germany, Switzerland, or with his national team. He may be an inherently flawed and limited player, with his lack of pace a particular detriment in a game growing ever faster by the year, but he continues to be a vital part of the team as he has for any he has been a part of.
And so he shall continue to be in the immediate future at Arsenal. The squad simply has too many holes to fill to be subtracting a player of Xhaka’s quality from the side without adequate replacement. Aaron Ramsey is off to Juventus next season, and he will leave behind a position group stacked 3 deep with starting calibre talent. Nobody should deny the obvious importance of Torreira and Guendouzi to the future health of the Arsenal midfield, but it would be equally foolish, in spite of whatever narratives have been crafted, to suggest that Granit Xhaka is anything less than one of the most important players currently at the club.