How Mikel Arteta is getting the BEST out of Granit Xhaka – Tactical Analysis
Many players throughout Arsenal’s squad have been used as a scapegoat and felt the force of immense criticism as a result of failures to reach the season’s objectives. Few have had a rougher ride than now-former club captain Granit Xhaka though. The Swiss midfielder arrived at Arsenal in 2016 following a successful career at Borrusia Mönchengladbach. Bundesliga media compared him to Xabi Alonso in an analysis video of their own. Many saw him as a solution to the gunner’s need for a physical presence in midfield.
A lot has changed in the Premier League and at Arsenal since the summer of 2016 and many had come to the conclusion over these years that Xhaka’s performances did not warrant a place in Arsenal’s squad. Last fall the abuse reached a tipping point with him, as he was substituted off against Crystal Palace he was booed by home fans at the Emirates and he shouted back at the crowd. Xhaka’s departure from the club was only a matter of time.
But then came Mikel Arteta, he demanded Xhaka stay at Arsenal and convinced him to stay at the N7. The young coach’s change at Arsenal has been very apparent through his tactics and the team’s performance level. One of the most consistent performers since the appointment has been midfielder Xhaka and in this tactical analysis, we will look at how the tactics used are covering his deficiencies and getting the best out of the technical midfielder.
A defined role
Under Unai Emery, it was difficult to understand the roles of players in the team and structure, especially in midfield. It also did not help that there was little-to-no consistency with the structure and system being deployed game-to-game. Sometimes Emery would play in a 4-2-3-1, then the next game a 3-4-1-2. You couldn’t tell if he was being instructed to play as an ‘8’ or a ‘6’ and the structures offered little support around him. As the midfield line would be stretched and there would be gaping holes of space in every direction.
Granit Xhaka would be played in the double-pivot or midfield three depending. Being tasked with helping play through a press during the buildup phases, his skillset does not offer the necessary mobility to resist aggressively being pressured and finding space in the central areas. Only making 0.58 successful dribbles per 90 last season. This resulted in high-profile turnovers and failed passes. In his first season with Wenger, he had a passing accuracy of 87%, teams throughout the league began to press more and more aggressively as seasons went on seeing the success of the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s teams. In Emery’s first season in charge, he ended with an 82% pass accuracy.
Arteta’s deployed a 3-3-4 during the buildup and a 2-3-5 in the attacking third. The way Xhaka is used in these structures covers his deficiencies. During the buildup phase, he drops into the backline creating a back-three this way he has time, space, and a vision of the entire field. This way he’s not under pressure and turning the ball over. It also cleverly creates width as left-bak Bakuya Saka is able to push high and wide up the field pinning the opposition fullback back. This has been one of the most effective pieces of Arteta’s tactics and it brings the best out of Xhaka during this phase and the results are there in his passing accuracy as although he’s attempting fewer passes per 90 operating deeper in the team, he has an 87% passing accuracy now.
Positional superiority and how it’s helped Xhaka
One tactical principle instilled by Arteta has been positional superiority. Superiority in positioning is required to move the ball effectively and have a structure in possession. Separating the pitch into zones in order to create passing angles and manipulate space on the pitch. Every player knows where he has to be and when. This creates consistency and understanding throughout players.
Of course, this part of has improved performance level on a collective level but this drastically assists our Swiss midfielder. Transitioning to the 2-3-5 structure in the attacking third Xhaka is now higher up the pitch as a centre midfielder in a midfield three. When pushing up the field there is now space behind him and with his athletic deficiencies, this can be seen as a problem in some scenarios such as a turnover that is created by the opposition who attack the space behind him. But this structure limits this as it positions him to always have multiple reliable passing options, giving him direction and understanding. It also keeps him positioned correctly so if there is a turnover space is covered.
As you can see in the image below the midfield space is organized in a way where Xhaka is in space and knows where he’s going to pass before he even receives the ball. This allows for great ball movement between him and the midfielders around him and limits the number of turnovers that can be created.
This time and space also allow him to express more of his skill set, he’s made 5.2 long-balls per game. With more space, he’s able to utilize his great passing range to influence the match in a dynamic way, such as bypass lines of pressure. Here is an analysis of a sequence from Arsenal’s last game. Where he takes out 10 Burnley players with one pass and sends Aubameyang through onto goal.
As we’ve seen in this tactical analysis, Mikel Arteta’s detailed and instructive tactics give Xhaka direction on the ball and cover without it. This limits the room for error and enhances his performance level. Under Emery, Xhaka could’ve been considered a square peg being forced into a round hole and it was very apparent. The confidence his performance level is bringing him and the beliefe Arteta showed him asking him to stay is collimating into unveiling the true player Arsenal has wanted to see and just in time as he approaches his prime years.