From ‘Clueless Liability’ to ‘Important Player’: How Mikel Arteta Transformed Granit Xhaka at Arsenal

Granit Xhaka

Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka has been a divisive figure ever since he arrived in North London.  Some fans applaud his passion and desire, whereas others have labelled him a “clueless liability” in the past.

However, this season at least, it seems as though Mikel Arteta has been able to do what even Gunners legend Arsene Wenger failed to do, as he’s found the perfect role for Xhaka in this Arsenal side.

Mikel Arteta Has Finally Found the Perfect Role For Granit Xhaka

Gross Mismanagement by Xhaka’s Previous Managers

Throughout his career at Arsenal, Xhaka has more often than not been deployed as a holding midfielder, particularly before the arrival of midfield partner Thomas Partey. This resulted in a lot of his weaknesses being exposed far too often, much to the ire of fans.

Firstly, Xhaka seems to struggle with his concentration and composure. Even in his best games, he is still prone to being caught on the ball or misplacing a pass, and when you play holding midfield, this often gets punished. The margin for error in this position is minimal, particularly in a team that has notoriously prioritised the attacking phase of the game and left its defensive players exposed.

Secondly, there is his lack of defensive awareness. Xhaka does not possess the same defensive instincts as Liverpool’s Fabinho for example, and this often leads to him making rash decisions or failing to track a run at a critical stage of the game. As mentioned, this effect is only heightened by the fact that Arsenal’s defensive players are often left exposed due to their attacking style of play. This combination of poor defensive awareness and limited concentration skills often results in the 29-year-old being forced to make last-gasp tackles, which goes some way to explaining his shocking return of 53 yellow cards and four red cards in just 194 Premier League appearances.

Very clearly then, defensive midfield does not suit Xhaka’s play style or his qualities. Despite that, Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery, Fredrick Ljungberg and even Mikel Arteta chose to deploy him at the base of their midfield, and Xhaka’s performances were being harmed as a result.

Or at least that was the case up until the start of the 2022/23 season.

Read More: ‘Discussions Moving to Key Stages’: Barcelona Wonderkid Dubbed as ‘Erupting Volcano’ Set to Sign New Contract – Fabrizio Romano

Granit Xhaka’s New Role As a Box-to-Box Midfielder

Not enough pace, not enough technical ability and not mobile enough. They would have been the words the majority of fans and pundits would have replied to Mikel Arteta had he publicly stated his plan to convert Xhaka to his new role as a number eight.

However, it has been a massive success so far with Arteta even designating his midfielder an “important player” for the club.

The central midfielder registered just six goal involvements in the Premier League between the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons. However, playing in his new role, he has already amassed three goal contributions in six games this season, showcasing the influence he can have at the top end of the pitch.

His SofaScore heatmap for the 2022/23 season also highlights his increased attacking involvement, with the former Borussia Monchengladbach man not just operating in the opposition’s half more often, but entering their box more frequently too.

Xhaka may not have the qualities of a traditional box-to-box midfielder, but that certainly isn’t stopping him from making the role his own.

The Switzerland international seems to be enjoying his new role too. Speaking to the club’s official website, he explained: “I’ve got more freedom to go up and down, I know I can do that. I have a lot of freedom from the coach, from my teammates.

“At the moment I’m happy with how everything is going. Let’s continue to work like this and hopefully at the end of the season we can be more than happy.”

Read More: Jurgen Klopp and the ‘7th Season Syndrome’

The Pep Guardiola Effect

It’s possible that Xhaka could have his manager’s former mentor to thank for his new role, as a likely factor for Arteta’s decision to redeploy the midfielder could be a result of his time working with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. During his time there, Arteta saw Guardiola dominate the Premier League using a very specific method of football. After the departure of striker Sergio Aguero, Manchester City often deployed a fluid front three or four depending on the opponent and supplemented those attackers with goals from midfield.

In Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard, Arteta had his fluid attack. But, he was still without his goal scorer from midfield. Or so everyone thought.

He may not be a household name like Kevin De Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan, but Xhaka has allowed Arteta to implement Guardiola’s template for success at Arsenal. Of course, the former Barcelona manager isn’t the only reason for Xhaka’s new role, Arteta is his own man after all, but he would have influenced the decision nevertheless.

One thing is for sure though, Granit Xhaka is relishing his new role in Arsenal’s midfield.