Euro 2016: Granit Xhaka’s Reputation Continues to Mushroom in France

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At Euro 2016, Granit Xhaka’s reputation continues to mushroom. His excellent displays at Borussia Mönchengladbach made him more widely known to the footballing world, his move to Arsenal brought him to the forefront of it and, with two man of the match performances for Switzerland in his first two games in France, he is now a source of excitement to English Premier League fans everywhere.

In the days after he was confirmed as a member of Arsene Wenger’s team for next season, one quote seemed to do the rounds more than most. “When I was younger, even though I had a big brother, my parents would give me the house key every day,” Xhaka said. “It’s in my head that I am a leader.”

People may have made fun of him for it on social media, but in a lot of ways it’s hard to argue with the former Basel star’s assessment. To say that the process of becoming a leader started after being entrusted with a set of keys does sound slightly bizarre, but at Gladbach he was also handed a set of keys, this time to the team, both as a captain and as a deep-lying playmaker, and at Euro 2016, too, his role is similarly vital.

He occupies one of the holding roles for Vladimir Petkovic’s side, sitting alongside Valon Behrami in a 4-2-3-1 formation. From there, he dictates much of the play for Switzerland. He drops deep to collect possession, often in between centre-backs Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar, before scanning his surroundings in the hope of finding an option. Usually, he not only has the vision to spot a teammate in a promising position, but also the aptitude to play the ball into that teammate’s feet.

In fact, Xhaka’s passing is the thing that truly sets him apart. Against Romania, for instance, he played 108 passes – 38 more than the next best (Schar) on the pitch. He achieved an 88% completion rate from those pass attempts, and given that he launched a massive 20 long balls for the game, that’s a pretty impressive figure. These statistics, in combination, also back up the way he plays on the pitch.

He usually plays the ball short to ensure Switzerland keep possession, but when there is an opening to be attacked, he doesn’t mind sliding a ball in between the lines or, more drastically, sweeping a longer pass into the final third. In relation to the latter, he was particularly impressive once the Swiss made a change at centre-forward. Petkovic removed Haris Seferovic, who got into good positions but struggled with his finishing, and replaced him with the speedy Breel Embolo. Embolo, who is the subject of interest from Manchester United, offered something different up top. He used his pace to try and break in behind the Romanian backline, and as Switzerland looked to break the 1-1 deadlock, Xhaka set about trying to find him.

Even though the £30 million Arsenal acquisition managed to do so on no less than three separate occasions, none of the moves amounted to anything. Yet that isn’t to say that his distribution wasn’t exceptional, and on one particular play, where he used his wand of a left foot to lift the ball from behind halfway and into the feet of Embolo on the edge of the area, there was a clear sense of his quality.

Xhaka has an almost effortless sweeping motion as he pings the ball from deep, and it’s a motion that allowed him to complete 14 of his 20 attempted long passes against Romania. That figure is in keeping with his efforts in last season’s German Bundesliga, where he averaged 7.4 accurate long balls per game, more than any other outfielder in the league. To say his distribution is crisp would be an understatement, but he’s more than just a passer.

In contrast, Xhaka is a very well-rounded midfielder, something he illustrated by dovetailing expertly with Switzerland’s left-back, Ricardo Rodriguez. The pair regularly linked up along the left-hand side, so much so that the leading pass combinations for the game were Rodriguez to Xhaka (21 passes) and Xhaka to Rodriguez (17 passes). They facilitated this tapestry largely through some complementary patterns of movement. When Rodriguez would push forward along the touchline, Xhaka, Switzerland’s left-sided central midfielder, would float into the space that the Wolfsburg man had vacated. This not only added an additional layer of protection for Switzerland in the event of a turnover, but it also allowed the duo to combine in close proximity.

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Together, they offered an impressive level of cohesion along the left, and with rumours of Arsenal’s interest in Rodriguez still circulating, the prospect of the two players achieving something similar in England is one that might excite the Gunners faithful. On a more individual level as well, Xhaka’s work with Switzerland illustrates that he has the positional sense to thrive as a deep-lying distributor. Throw in his hard-edged, albeit occasionally undisciplined, defensive game, and he is a player who should fit seamlessly within Arsene Wenger’s system.

For now, however, the Basel born midfielder will be focused exclusively on helping his nation to achieve the best possible outcome at Euro 2016, and after two man of the match performances to kick off the campaign, he’ll be keenly observed in Switzerland’s next match against host nation France.

It’ll be yet another challenge for him, but if he can come through it with another strong performance characterised by crisp passing from the base of midfield, there’s every chance that his already burgeoning reputation will continue to grow.