The Pros and Cons of Arsenal Keeping Granit Xhaka
Granit Xhaka is one of the most divisive players Arsenal have had in recent years; half the fanbase adores him, half can’t wait to see the back of him. I admire the Swiss Captain more than most do, and when news broke that he had been offered a contract extension by the club, I did see the benefits of it, but nevertheless do have some reservations.
The Roma Bid
Xhaka is 28, which as a defensive midfielder means he is entering the prime of his career. He’s just returned from a stellar EURO campaign, during which he led Switzerland to their first ever quarter final appearance, including a stunning performance against Pogba and Kante in the French midfield.
It seemed that he was ready to depart the club when Roma registered their interest, but as the Italian club only offered around £12m+3m addons for him, well below his value, the club have been correct to reject these bids. He has 2 years left on his deal and should command a fee arguably double that amount, for someone who played the most minutes out of every outfield player last season. Offering him a new deal may secure his future for the next few years, but also helps retain his value, should he or the club want to part ways next summer.
Before the news of the new contract broke, I was still considering the benefits of keeping him for at least one more year anyway. Clubs all over Europe aren’t spending like they used to, thanks to the heavy losses suffered as a result of a year of empty stadiums, meaning that next summer a similar fee to the £12m figure floated about could be attained once everyone sorts their financial woes out.
Although Xhaka has his qualities, he is by no means irreplaceable. If we were to receive a bid which then allows us to upgrade on him with someone like Manuel Locatelli or Bruno Guimarães of Lyon, then it would be a no brainer. A fee as low as £12m with no replacement on the horizon makes the team significantly weaker than last season. Roma refused to pay up, therefore he didn’t go.
His Impact on The Team
Xhaka plays in a position where it is difficult to receive praise, similarly to Jorginho of Chelsea. He is often the first one blamed when the team loses, and his impact on the rest of the team is only properly noticed when he is absent, most crucially in the second leg draw vs Villarreal. A one-man midfield of Partey behind two playmakers was torn to shreds against a double pivot of Dani Parejo and Coquelin, and as a unit the team struggled to create anything from midfield.
His biggest critics often accuse him of solely passing the ball backwards and sideways, as well as giving away too many fouls. To dispel some myths, when compared with two players who have been mooted as his replacements, Ruben Neves and Yves Bissouma, Xhaka averages significantly more forward passes per 90 minutes and less fouls conceded from attempted tackles than both. Xhaka completed the most passes into the final third out of any player in the Premier League last season, and averages 7.17 progressive passes per game, which is in the top 5% of all midfielders in Europe.
His importance to the team is mainly based on his ability to bring the ball forward and dictate the game. He progresses the ball on average 366 yards per game, which is a much higher figure than his Arsenal teammates Thomas Partey and Mohammed Elneny, who progress it 323 and 214 yards respectively.
Under Mikel Arteta, Xhaka’s role in the team has been to effectively hold down the left-hand side, progressing the ball from the defence and giving Kieran Tierney at left back freedom to push forward. His ability to progress the ball with his left foot means Tierney can receive the ball in the final third to then cross into the box.
Despite the strengths for which Xhaka deserves to be praised, there are obvious flaws to his game which attract the criticism. His lack of mobility means that when pressed, he is prone to being dispossessed in dangerous areas, which can lead to the opposition scoring. A prime example of this is the goal Burnley scored at Turf Moor in the 1-1 draw in March. Xhaka received the ball inside his own box, and with two opposition players closing in, cleared the ball straight into Chris Wood which deflected into his own net. His slow movement meant that instead of being able to turn and face the play on his left foot, he had to play a first time pass on his weaker right. Whilst some portion of the blame can be attributed to a poor pass from Bernd Leno, it is not the first mistake Xhaka has made, and given the deep central position in which he plays, errors which may be harmless further up the pitch, can be fatal when playing in his own box.
A solution to his lack of mobility would be to replace him with someone more agile, such as Bissouma, but given his significantly lower passing volume, this would come at a cost of losing the ball progression from midfield. Ruben Neves has similar mobility problems, and in this system would likely be subjected to the same pressure on the ball.
Another solution would be to partner Xhaka up with a midfielder with the athleticism to be able to cover for him. Thomas Partey worked well in a double pivot with Xhaka in the few games they played together last season, but it remains to be seen how bad the injury he picked up in Sunday’s ‘friendly’ vs Chelsea is. (Thank you, Loftus-Cheek!) Dani Ceballos formed a decent partnership with him during the 2020 FA cup run, but his poor performances last season did not earn him a permanent move here. If Partey were to stay fit for an extended period, with no European distractions, he and Granit could form a very solid pivot, with Xhaka progressing the ball through his passing and Thomas through his dribbling and strong ball retention skills.
Mikel Arteta confirmed yesterday that Xhaka would stay and remains “a key member of his squad” (Arsenal.com). Whilst Xhaka staying makes sense: he is not blocking the arrival of another central midfielder, and could help one settle in, the contract offer given to him suggests that he will be part of the team in the long term. Given that he was close to leaving twice, this is quite the turnaround, and indicates a strong show of faith in him by the Arsenal hierarchy. Whether he can deliver on this faith, and win back the trust of the fanbase, is down to how the manager plays him, and if he improves the side of the game which has seen him commit a number of crucial errors. Overall, he is a much more important player, and leader in the team, than Mohammed Elneny, who should be sold instead of him.
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