Granit Xhaka has divided opinion amongst Arsenal fans ever since he joined from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2016. While the midfielder’s distribution really adds quality to his side’s play, he has been criticised for lacking good defensive sense.
The Swiss international also happens to be crucial to his side’s success.
Granit Xhaka: Inconveniently Important
Far and away the player’s main attribute, Xhaka’s passing makes Arsenal’s midfield tick like a Swiss watch at times. He averages far more passes (79) and more long balls (5.7) per match than any other Arsenal player, even when including goalkeepers.
Surprisingly, he even makes more crosses (.9) per 90 minutes than any other Arsenal player, despite the fact he plays centrally. Granit Xhaka also completes more key passes (1.3) each time out than any other central midfielder, and the third-most on the club behind Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac.
Simply put, the Arsenal attack is just not the same without the Swiss stalwart in the starting 11. This was highlighted during the player’s recent injury absence.
That performance stands in stark contrast to the recent 2-0 win over Southampton at the Emirates. In that match, Arsenal enjoyed much more of the ball, took more shots, attempted more passes and completed more passes than the away side.
While the team got the win in the end against the Terriers, it was a mighty struggle compared to the relatively easy dispatching of the Saints. The performance was down, in no small part, to the presence of Granit Xhaka in Arsenal’s midfield.
He kept the ball moving, constantly finding an open teammate. He also kept looking for dangerous passes, not content to pass it right, left or backwards the way both Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira have at times this season.
The other area in which Xhaka stands head and shoulders over his teammates is durability. The midfielder didn’t miss a single Premier League match last season, starting 37 and coming off the bench for one.
That is not to mention that Xhaka almost always plays the full 90 minutes when he does start.
Arsenal fans will be the first to acknowledge the physical frailties which their players have displayed over the years. Players such as Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby, who spent more time receiving treatment than playing, are still fresh in their minds.
Having a midfielder who can be counted on to play 90 minutes twice a week has been a rare commodity indeed at the Emirates. In Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have found such a player.
Where He Fails
To put it bluntly, defensively. From his first season in England, Xhaka found it difficult to adapt to the speed and skill of the Premier League. He earned two straight red cards in his first season for very poorly-timed tackles where he really had no chance of getting the ball.
He has learned not to go to ground quite so quickly since then but has found other ways to hurt Arsenal. First and foremost on that list is his poor positioning.
Granit Xhaka simply seems not to know where to go when his side doesn’t have the ball. He routinely either gives his mark too much space or pushes too high up the pitch, occupying similar territory as when he plays for Switzerland.
Especially when paired with Aaron Ramsey, these mistakes often lead to opposition chances.
He is also fairly immobile. While speed and agility aren’t necessary to dominate midfield, they certainly help. However, Xhaka possesses neither.
When he is on his game and spraying the ball around the field for fun, opponents have a tough time closing him down, nullifying this weakness. However, when caught trying to turn he tends to give the ball away in very dangerous positions.
Plus, there are his mental errors. While Unai Emery seems to have ironed out some of his lapses in concentration, Xhaka still gives the ball away easily at times and tries foolhardy passes intermittently.
Case in point was his near-giveaway against Southampton on Sunday. Despite playing well overall, this error nearly gave the visitors a great shot on goal.
It is probably poetic justice that such a double-edged sword is so important to Arsenal this season. Granit Xhaka can be a joy to watch when his distribution and durability are on display.
However, he can also be a terror for his own teammates with his poor judgement, poor defensive positioning and mental errors.
This inconsistency is typical of this Arsenal team, who can go from beating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in the league to losing to the same side 2-0 almost immediately after in the cup.
There really isn’t another player who typifies this Arsenal side quite like Granit Xhaka.
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