Granit Xhaka Shows He’s On The Right Track For Arsenal

xhakaEven now, Granit Xhaka is misunderstood on a fairly consistent basis. Observers still insist on comparing him directly to N’Golo Kante and Victor Wanyama, which is unusual given that the Swiss international is a completely different player from the other two. Granted they were all new signings for London clubs at the start of the season, but beyond that, there isn’t much reason to compare a deep-lying playmaker with two genuine holding midfielders.

Naturally, Wenger has been forced to address these comparisons, and he did so in a very succinct way not long ago. “They are different types of players,” the Frenchman argued. “I think Xhaka is more in the distribution of the pass through the lines and Kante is more the ball winner with the real technique to steal the ball without making the foul.

“You compare more Kante with Francis Coquelin than with Xhaka. Xhaka is more a distribution player.”

Wenger made these comments back in March, but they haven’t necessarily shifted the narrative surrounding Xhaka. His recent displays have highlighted how much he likes to get on the ball and how his passing sets him apart, something that was especially apparent against Leicester, where he completed an impressive 90 of his 98 passes for a completion rating of 92%. Yet there is still plenty of commentary that frames him as an enforcer in midfield, commentary that therefore sets about placing his defensive statistics alongside those of Kante and Wanyama.

Why these thoughts continue to persist is hard to know. Maybe it’s because of his spotty disciplinary record, or maybe it’s because his imposing physique is more suggestive of a holding player than it is of a regista. Regardless, though, it’s important to recognise that Xhaka is first and foremost a passer. In this regard, what stands out most about him is his thoughtful approach to distribution, and when it comes down to a mix between timing the release of a pass and executing it to perfection, there are few better at the base of midfield.

For the former Basel man, it’s all about ensuring the time is right to let go of the ball. Sometimes, he’ll simply just stand with it at his feet, waiting for a teammate to get into the opportune position to receive possession. On other occasions, he’ll be a little more active, gently dribbling the ball in front of him as he assesses his options. The aim, however, is always the same: give the ball to a teammate so that he is in the best possible position to make something happen.

Against Leicester a couple of weeks ago, Xhaka found Kieran Gibbs twice in quick succession by doing this. The first time around, he picked up possession out on the left-hand side and took a second to scan his surroundings. At this point he noticed Kieran Gibbs making an underlapping run, and once the young Englishman had surged in between two Leicester defenders, Xhaka hit a short vertical ball in behind the Foxes’ backline. Its accuracy was such that it skidded beyond the outstretched leg of defender Danny Simpson and into the path of Gibbs, and even though the wingback couldn’t pick out a teammate inside the area, Xhaka would give him another opportunity to do so not long after.

Here, the two players were in more conventional positions, with Gibbs out on the left as Xhaka occupied his typical central midfield station. The move kicked off with Gibbs passing the ball back inside for Xhaka. The ex-Gladbach star then took a neat touch to place the ball out in front of him, had a look to see if Mesut Ozil was free and, upon deciding that he wasn’t, waited for Gibbs to make a run beyond Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez. Gibbs made that run pretty sharply, so Xhaka decided to play a piercing ball between Mahrez, Leicester’s right-winger, and Simpson, Leicester’s right-back. It wasn’t an easy pass by any means, but that didn’t stop Xhaka from making it look like it was. He punctured the hole with a simple whip of his left foot, the pass so expertly weighted that Gibbs didn’t have to break stride. The move again ended with an unsuccessful cutback, but from Xhaka’s point of view, the fact that he was giving Gibbs the chance to find a target in the final third was what was important.

It’s this combination of decision-making and execution that makes Xhaka such a great example of a deep-lying playmaker. He has a wonderful range of passing and the kind of vision to sense what’s unfolding in front of him, and when he can couple that passing proficiency with his keen sense of timing, he’s not an easy guy to stop. Even in the second half of the Leicester game, when he played a two-metre pass to Ozil, you could see the thought process behind it. He stood with the ball for an extra second, enough to allow the enigmatic German midfielder to dart clear of Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi, before moving it on with precision. That enabled Ozil to burst in behind the opposition backline, and again it was a case of Xhaka doing the work at the front-end to allow those in attack to thrive.

Then, of course, there are Xhaka’s more general contributions to Arsenal’s passing play. He’s not always in a position to unpick defences, especially when he receives the ball in deeper locations, so sometimes it’s more about keeping everything ticking over. Sometimes it’s just about finding a teammate and retaining possession, patiently probing in the hope that an opening will eventually present itself. Xhaka did this beautifully against Leicester, and he then added another 74 passes at 94.6% accuracy in Arsenal’s recent 2-0 win over Manchester United. It’s fair, then, to say that he copes with this aspect of his role rather well.

More than that, it’s important to recognise that these numbers are typical for Xhaka. His overall pass accuracy for the current English Premier League campaign sits on 89%, and according to Squawka, he completes 73.56 passes per 90 minutes of play. That last statistic is a league-high among players who have featured in 10 or more matches this season, and when placed alongside his high accuracy rating, it not only shows how much of the ball Xhaka gets but how well he uses it too. These qualities are important for a player who fancies himself as a deep-lying distributor, and when you’re turning out for a ball-hoarding team like Arsenal, they’re even more important again. Throw in the fact that Xhaka can adeptly ping long balls from side to side, switching the play at a moment’s notice in the process, and it isn’t hard to see why Arsenal shelled out £30 million in order to secure his services.

That long-ball ability also makes him significant in Arsenal’s experimental 3-4-3 formation, as with the Gunners’ attacking trio sitting in more central positions and the opposition defenders therefore following them infield, there is plenty of space available for Arsenal’s wingbacks on the flanks. That means they need someone who can move the ball onto them quickly, and in Xhaka, Arsenal have just the man for the job. Take, for example, his early loft to Gibbs against Man Utd, where he picked up the ball deep in midfield, steadied and finished up by curling a pinpoint long ball into the path of the onrushing left-sided defender.

Alexis eventually ended up with a shot in the box as a result of Xhaka’s initial pass, and though it only found the gloves of David De Gea, the 24-year-old Swiss would go onto break the deadlock early in the second half. Naturally enough for a player of his long-range shooting ability, it was a 35-yard shot, via a heavy deflection off Ander Herrera, that gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead, and when Danny Welbeck doubled that lead just minutes later, Arsenal were well on their way to victory.

Xhaka hobbled off 76 minutes into the contest, but he nonetheless contributed in a key way. He grabbed the opener and, despite missing a fair chunk of the game, finished with the highest number of passes of any Arsenal player on the pitch. This isn’t, of course, to say that he’s the finished article, as he certainly needs to refine some of his work off the ball, most notably in the tackle, but he’s certainly on the right track. After all, you don’t become one of the biggest possession players at a team like Arsenal without being an excellent outfielder, and the fact that Wenger now trusts Xhaka to perform that deep-lying playmaker role in big matches is indicative of his significance to the team.

For Xhaka himself, he’s just happy to be contributing to the side. “I’m really satisfied to have been able to help the team,” he told Arsenal.com, “and I hope that continues in the coming weeks.” He also feels as if he’s become “cleverer” in the wake of his disciplinary struggles, and now that he’s gone through a sometimes tough period of adaptation to the Premier League, he’s starting to look as if he belongs at this level.

Who knows, with a little further refinement to his defensive technique, he might even shed that image of reckless enforcer and start to be considered more regularly for what he’s best at: finding teammates with left-footed precision.

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