In August 2016, having just arrived from Basel, the Swiss midfielder was left on the bench as Arsène Wenger plumped for a midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin. Liverpool edged a thrilling game at the Emirates 4-3.
Xhaka’s first two starts against the Reds, both at Anfield, were harrowing experiences, losing 3-1 and 4-0, the latter leading many to predict that the midfielder’s days as a Gunner were numbered.
And although he scored in last December’s 3-3 draw at the Emirates, questions were again raised after Jürgen Klopp’s men dominated the midfield.
But Xhaka, so often a figure to draw ire from his own fans, came of age in Liverpool’s most recent trip to Arsenal.
The 26-year-old, deployed alongside the impressive Lucas Torreira in midfield, produced one of his more impressive displays for the north Londoners, refusing to wilt this time as Arsenal recovered from a goal down to clinch a point and extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to 14 games.
And there were plenty of positives for Arsenal fans to chew on. Rob Holding shone in defence once again, Alexandre Lacazette scored a brilliant equaliser while Alex Iwobi – another who has been enjoying life under Unai Emery – came off the bench to tee the Frenchman up.
But it was Xhaka who achieved redemption, his steadfast refusal to allow Liverpool a free crack at the Arsenal defence forcing the visitors to attack down the flanks – a radical departure from the theme of Wenger’s midfields being picked apart and overrun.
That Xhaka completed the most passes (85) in the match will come as little surprise. He has often topped the passing charts, but there were moments in which Emery’s intense management style had clearly rubbed off on the player.
Xhaka attempted five tackles and made 16 recoveries in total, six more than Torreira, with the most notable undoubtedly his last-ditch challenge on a breakaway Mohamed Salah after having busted a gut to catch up with the Egyptian.
Poking the ball away from Salah’s toe was the moment which attracted much praise on social media, having prompted Emery to celebrate it as if he were celebrating one of his side’s goals.
But it was no anomaly. It came less than a minute after Xhaka had shrugged off Roberto Firmino, owning the second-ball after Salah’s knocked-down header. These were moments that were hard to imagine happening under Wenger.
And Xhaka’s stats certainly make for interesting reading. This season, he is winning more aerial duels (1.94 per 90 minutes to 2017/18’s 1.35) but is actually down in his expected goals (xG) and expected goals assisted (xA) per 90, the latter of which has decreased by two-thirds from 0.09 to 0.03.
As you can see, Football Whispers’ player comparison personas trace the slight but important changes in Xhaka this season. Under Emery, he is shooting less and defending more, while his game remains heavily shaped by build-up passing.
Emery has used Xhaka mainly in the holding role alongside Torreira. There, his primary function is to shield the defence and break up play. However, given Torreira’s excellent positioning and covering abilities, Xhaka has still been able to showcase his passing range.
Under Emery, he is averaging 28.41 forward passes per 90 compared to 23.82 last season. The improvements in the defensive side of his game are clear but he has not lost that ability to influence going forward either.
Xhaka’s stats may not have changed drastically but his mentality seemingly has. He is not without his flaws, of course, and he will continue to make mistakes, but he has in recent weeks attracted several glowing post-match analyses when so often he was a scapegoat for Arsenal crumbling in games against the Premier League’s top sides.
His confidence is a product of both Torreira’s arrival and Emery’s exceptionally intense man-management. The video breakdowns during the week, the repetitive drills, the focus on the mundane.
It all seems worth it when Xhaka breaks down an opponent’s attack and looks to the touchline to see his manager celebrating wildly. Yes, his rise to prominence is just one of several encouraging signs in what is an increasingly compelling debut season for Emery at the Emirates.