It’s pretty clear that most Arsenal fans don’t like Granit Xhaka.
The feeling, at least on Sunday at the Emirates, seemed to be mutual. Xhaka responded to the crowd jeering him as he came off the field with some, shall we say, colourful language. It was a deplorable way for a club captain to behave, and has only increased criticism of him.
But in his defence, if your own fans are openly hostile towards you, shout unending abuse at you, and then jeer you as you come off… what are you supposed to do? We too often forget that players are human beings and sometimes they will react poorly to abuse.
Now, it’s clear that at this point Xhaka shouldn’t continue as club captain and a statement must be made in that regard. But Arsenal fans are calling for his head, that he should be sold, benched, etc. and they’re taking this recent failure as validation that Xhaka isn’t good enough for Arsenal.
So the question becomes, is Xhaka good enough for Arsenal? He definitely divides opinion, with his strengths often being overshadowed by his weaknesses. He’s slow to turn, slow to sprint, and far too rash in the tackle.
Now, all that is true, so why on earth is Xhaka playing at the base of midfield? Why did Arsene Wenger and now Unai Emery place so much faith in him?
Because he can pass. Xhaka can pass up a storm. The Swiss international has completed the most passes per-90 of any Arsenal player this season with 58.34 (with a minimum of 180 minutes played).
Contrary to belief that he is a backpass merchant, when it comes to forward passes per-90 only Nacho Monreal, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers have more than his 19.53 (33.4% of Xhaka’s completed passes go forward). The Swiss is always advancing the ball.
Even in the final third, an area where Xhaka wouldn’t usually be expected to dominate given his position, his 13.83 completed passes per-90 is fourth amongst all Arsenal players. He’s a pass machine, and in a team as pro-active, that is an invaluable asset.
So why is he such a problem? Well, it’s because Arsenal set him up to fail.
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Not on purpose, obviously, but they ask Xhaka to play a role he isn’t capable of. He’s a largely immobile passer of the ball, the kind of player who can be absolutely dominant as long as someone else is around to protect him and do his running for him.
Andrea Pirlo was obviously a legend of the game, but part of the reason for that was that Gennaro Gattuso – or Daniele De Rossi for Italy, or Arturo Vidal for Juventus – was always around to cover for him. To do his running. Without them he was a largely immobile passing fanatic who would be constantly exposed – but because he was always put in a position to succeed, he became one of the world’s best.
Toni Kroos is a legend of the game. The gallant German is a glorious passer of the ball but is limited athletically, though Real Madrid and Germany have compensated for that by pairing him with the likes of Casemiro and Sami Khedira. This has ensured that Kroos can play his natural game unencumbered by the burden of defensive responsibility and as a result Germany won a World Cup and Real Madrid have been on an era of extreme Champions League dominance.
Now Xhaka doesn’t have the sheer talent to become as good as Kroos, but he can play considerably better than he often does for Arsenal. All Unai Emery has to do is find a defensive warrior to help do his running for him. Someone who can cover for Xhaka in the same way Casemiro does for Kroos. Y’know, someone like Lucas Torreira.
The Uruguayan is a committed and fierce defensive talent who has shown the capability to excel as a single or double pivot. Emery could play him with Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi (or Dani Ceballos) in a midfield three, having Xhaka pick his passes as Torreira focuses simply on defending and Guendouzi (or Ceballos) play his naturally fluid game.
With Torreira protecting him and the third midfielder offering dynamic movement between the lines, the Swiss would truly shine. Alright he’s not going to turn into Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal fans really need to accept the fact that they may never have a midfielder as magnificent as Fabregas again for a long, long while) but he will be able to push his natural talents further.
You could even play him and Torreira as a double pivot. Either way, he’d be able to do what he does best. Since Xhaka joined Arsenal he has played 1,313 passes into the final third, that’s the most amongst all Premier League players in that timeframe and more than double any other Arsenal player (the fans’ other punching bag, Mesut Ozil, is second with 610).
Now imagine what he could do if properly supported? The talent is there for Xhaka to take his game to another level entirely, all he needs is the opportunity to do so – an opportunity Unai Emery should provide through Lucas Torreira. And hey, maybe the Arsenal fans still wouldn’t warm to him; but at least they’d be judging a player at his best, rather than condemning one at his worst.