Premier League

Granit Xhaka: Hit or Miss at Arsenal

 • by Andrew Gibney
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International breaks are a killer for fans of club football. The games are not on at the same time you are used to, and you are praying for players to return free from injury. What does always happen though, is players talk to their native press and some interesting titbits emerge – usually ‘wrongly translated’.

Granit Xhaka has come under a lot of pressure at Arsenal this season after joining for big money from Borussia Mönchengladbach. He cost more than N’Golo Kanté and with the Frenchman set to win another league title and perhaps Player of the Season, that’s just another reason for Arsenal fans to get mad.

Bayern Munich rumours

Due to his performances for Arsenal, there were rumours that Bayern Munich were keeping an eye on the situation, regarding him as a replacement to Xabi Alonso, and looking to make a move if the Switzerland international was unhappy.

“I have read that too, said Xhaka, when asked by Swiss publication, Blick. “But I have not heard anything.”

Hardly a strong condemnation from the midfielder, but he followed that up, saying he found himself in “an outstanding city, an outstanding club. The only thing that Arsenal has been missing is a league title.”

“I believe that will change soon.”

Sitting in fifth place, 19 points behind the league leaders, it is going to take a monumental shift in power for the Gunners to pick up a league title soon, but if you don’t believe in the club you are playing for, there’s really no reason to play the game.

Obviously bombarded with questions, another Swiss publication, Tagesanzeiger, asked the 24-year-old if he missed the Bundesliga:

“Yeah. But it’s not like I want to go back tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow.”

Which gives the impression that he’s willing to see how this Arsenal adventure goes, but with no surprise, he wouldn’t mind a return, especially if the German champions were to come calling.

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal in action during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth

Beaten 10-2 by Bayern in the UEFA Champions League, it highlighted both the ruthlessness of the Germans and Arsenal’s soft under belly. Arsène Wenger had tried to convince everyone that both clubs were at the same level, no one believed him and no one is buying it from Xhaka either:

“From my view, they are [on the same level]… That’s how I feel. The defeats annoy me particularly because I have had good memories against Bayern.”

“We were able to beat them three times with Gladbach. And I don’t think Gladbach are on the same level as Arsenal.”

Xhaka is right, or he should be. Mönchengladbach shouldn’t be at the same level as the North London club, but beating Bayern is about mentality, game plan and belief, and those are the three things that Arsenal are struggling with this season, especially with the mystery surrounding Wenger’s future.

Doubts over Granit Xhaka’s ability

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal (R) during The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final match between Arsenal and Lincoln City

The same doubts exist over the midfielder’s own future and even whether he is good enough to take this club forward. Yet, still just 24 years old and learning how to play in a new team, new league and adapt to a new culture, it’s typically English to be hounding his performances this early.

Interest from Bayern Munich should at least suggest that there is a good player in there. As a club, they don’t just look at anyone. Manchester City got it wrong about Jérôme Boateng, Arsenal would be foolish to pull the plug on Xhaka just yet.

The biggest criticism surrounds his tackling, and his reckless nature. He has picked up both of Arsenal’s red cards this season, but with three yellows, he’s behind Shkodran Mustafi, Alexis Sánchez and Francis Coquelin in that regard.

There is no excusing the tackle against Swansea, he’s way behind Modou Barrow before he launches in with no chance of winning the ball. Yet, you can see from Xhaka’s reaction, he thought he may have only picked up a booking, perhaps that was more in hope.

His reaction was similar against Burnley. Xhaka’s poor pass gave the ball away and there is an eagerness you can admire as he wants to win the ball back, but both his feet leave the floor, there is minimal contact, but it’s the reckless nature, rather than how he collides with Steven Defour that earns him the red.

Xhaka’s Reckless Streak

An almost identical incident happened during the second leg of the Bayern defeat. As you can see from the graphic below, it’s a slack pass that gives the ball away and hands the Germans a chance to break. Xhaka, again, eager to resolve his mistake, sees a glimmer of hope that he can win the ball back.

A poor pass from Xhaka led to a terrible challenge.A poor pass from Xhaka led to a terrible challenge.

He flies into a tackle, Rafinha jumps over his leg, Xhaka cleans him out and Douglas Costa picks up the loose ball, storms up the pitch and makes it 3-1 to Bayern.

The whole incident could have been avoided. Bad passes happen, but he needs to learn to stay on his feet in those situations.

Has Granit Xhaka been a hit or miss for Arsenal

Rather than label him a dirty player, as seen above, other players have more yellow cards than the former Monchengladbach midfielder, and his statistics this season back that up. In his last two seasons in Germany, he made 2.8 fouls per 90 minutes each term, for Arsenal, that has dropped to 1.4. He has been handed the same amount of yellows per 90, but it clearly shows his is maturing in the right direction, is making fewer fouls, but is just being punished more.

The number of tackles he has won since moving to England hasn’t changed massively, this season he has attempted 4.5 per 90 minutes, winning 3.1, that’s 68.8 per cent, down from 75.7 per cent last season, but up from 67.5 per cent in 2014/15.

One thing that Xhaka must improve is his work rate in the middle of the park, perhaps not in terms of numbers. He is blocking more shots (1.1) this season, but he is making fewer clearances and interceptions than he did in the Bundesliga.

Perceived effort is sometimes much different to actual effort, but it’s the image that is left in your mind. Too often, Xhaka is beaten too easily, the image of a prone leg being stuck out, but in that situation, you must work back to rescue the situation and protect the defence.

There was a great example against Lincoln City in the FA Cup, Xhaka was muscled off the ball and then as the player attacks the penalty area.

Granit Xhaka needs to work harder in defence.Granit Xhaka needs to work harder in defence.

Two of the Swiss player’s team-mates run beyond him in an attempt to close down the danger. Xhaka barely breaks into a job, just sauntering back towards the box. That level, or lack of effort, is not expected in the Premier League. And that isn’t the only time it has happened.

Superb Swiss Creativity

However, Wenger didn’t pay £38million for a defensive first midfielder, whether in a two, or three-man formation, that would normally be Coquelin’s job. Xhaka is there for his vision, passing and ability to start attacks.

In that area, he is superb and probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Xhaka doesn’t rack up assists, that’s not his game. His two for Arsenal this campaign is actually his best return. In three league seasons in Germany, he left with three in total.

The 24-year-old is the man behind the pass before the final pass. He’s the man playing the ball you won’t remember. Against Bournemouth there was a great moment when the away side put him under pressure, forcing him away from his trusted and wonderful left-foot.

Even under pressure, Granit Xhaka can pick an excellent pass.

Yet, he was still able to shift the ball on to his right and threat a pin-point pass down the flank.

Even under pressure, Granit Xhaka can pick an excellent pass.

Mesut Özil is free to play in a cross, but nothing comes from the move, making it instantly forgettable.

When you watch closely, you can see the superb football brain that Xhaka possesses, little dink passes, the chips to runners in behind. Guaranteed that is the situations he is putting players into were converted into goals, there wouldn’t be so many doubts around his ability.

Yet, once he makes the pass, it’s not down to him if Arsenal score, more of the blame should go to the attackers and the wide players.

No one in the Premier League makes more passes into the final third (17.82) than Xhaka this season. That’s more than Jordan Henderson, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Fernandinho. His key passes have gone up from 0.8 per 90 minutes, to 1.0 this term and he is being dispossessed less than he was in Germany.

Xhaka: Hit or Miss?

Xhaka needs to be viewed as an integral building block to Wenger, or whoever oversees the club in the future. His intelligence and ability is only going to grow and although it may look like money wasted. Sign the right players, give him the tools to put Arsenal in even more promising positions and the Swiss international can grow into a world beater.

Alternatives to Arsenal signing Arda Turan

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