What to do with Granit Xhaka?
A look at Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka – his qualities, his frailties and whether he can improve to become captain.
Arsenal’s midfield frailties have been apparent for close to a decade now, but back in 2016, when Arsene Wenger splashed his tightly held cash to purchase powerhouse Granit Xhaka, it appeared the club had finally secured a player to control the middle of the park.
And yet, as Xhaka enters his fourth season in the Premier League, he proved once again on Sunday, with a mindless tackle on Heung-Min Son which lead to a penalty, that for all his qualities off the field, he leaves a lot to be desired on it.
Xhaka’s frustrating complexity has been clear to see for a while now. Aged 26, it’s obvious the midfielder has many admirable qualities. He sets the tempo for Arsenal, always making himself available to collect the ball and is keen and usually effective in moving the play forward. More so, Xhaka’s passing range is up there with the best in the league, be it short or long, he usually picks out his man with a success rate of 87%.
Then there’s his reliability. While Xhaka has at least one moment every game which forces Arsenal fans to scream involuntary profanities, he is consistent in his performance. He can be trusted to put some (often late) tackles in with a 67% percentage win rate and always records impressive running statistics.
More so, there’s no denying that Wenger and now Unai Emery see Xhaka as a guaranteed starter. Since joining Arsenal he’s played a total of 102 games out of a possible 118. Assuming most of those missed would be through suspension or injury, that’s an extremely impressive record.
On top of all of this, Xhaka’s most impressive characteristic is undoubtedly his leadership qualities. Handed the armband at Borussia Monchengladbach aged 22 and now also the Switzerland captain, there’s a level headedness and distinctive role model in Xhaka. He always conducts himself well in interviews and backs himself as a leader of men. In spite of this, would a better leader not have learnt from their mistakes, similarly to how Jordan Henderson has at Liverpool?
And this lack of learning would have played in to Unai Emery resisting from naming Xhaka the official club captain. Currently the Arsenal programme this season doesn’t have ‘captain’s notes’ but rather ‘the view from the dressing room.’
Xhaka’s reckless decision to rapidly slide in on Son was his seventh error leading directly to a goal. That makes him the fourth highest player on the infamous list behind Martin Skrtel, Joleon Lescott and Gary Cahill since records began in 2006/07.
Emery may still have hope that these mindless decisions will be coached out of the midfielder, yet, there are other deeply rooted problems which Xhaka will never overcome. The first being his agility. Playing in the fastest league in the world, Xhaka is constantly caught on the turn as midfielders glide past him and for a player who’s trusted with shielding his back four, he consistently leaves the Arsenal defence exploited to danger.
Whereas N’golo Kante is everywhere, getting a foot in and putting attackers under pressure, Xhaka is normally nowhere, the play passing him by with such a speed that his only form of defence is to shrug down player’s shirts.
Granit Xhaka is certainly above the levels of mistake ridiculed Mustafi, but at times he seems desperate to impersonate his teammate as he dives to ground and makes decisions which would be unforgivable at under 8 level, let alone Premier League level, let alone North London derby level.
Xhaka’s questionable decision-making leads into his dreadful disciplinary record. Since joining Arsenal he’s picked up 27 yellow cards, two red cards and committed 147 fouls. In contrast, Kante since joining Chelsea for £30m in the same summer has received 16 yellow cards, no red cards and committed 131 fouls.
Xhaka’s also guilty of watching players run off of him. There have been numerous occasions when opposing midfielders have made late bursting runs into the Arsenal box easily waltzing past Xhaka as he rarely checks his shoulders for such runs and pays the price too many times.
All of this leaves Xhaka and Emery in a tricky situation. With Lucas Torreria proving once again his qualities for the team, and Matteo Guendozi (who was excellent against Tottenham) and Joe Willock showing that improving is very possible, it looks as though Granit Xhaka could play himself out the team and never get back.
Xhaka is coming to a cross-roads in his Arsenal career and if he truly wants to secure the armband then he’s going to need to show he can improve.
Unai Emery and Arsenal fans alike would like nothing more than to see Xhaka overcome these issues and reach his full potential. However, Raul Sanllehi proved in the transfer window that the club have a much firmer policy on sales and are not afraid of pushing players out.
For now, the team have two weeks off with international duty and the performance of Xhaka will linger longer in Emery’s mind than he’d like. In truth, the midfielder will probably keep his place, but if Xhaka continues to let down his team like this, it doesn’t matter how many qualities he has off the pitch, there won’t be any room for him on it.
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