Xhaka Can’t

I had planned to write about Granit Xhaka for this week’s column prior to the North London derby. In fact, I was at a bit of a loose end on Saturday and nearly wrote the piece before the derby had been played. I cautioned myself against the idea because there was still the small matter of a game on the Sunday and, well, with more games comes more information.

I wanted to write an investigative piece into why his stock has fallen with the Arsenal fan base. He has always been a divisive player for Arsenal fans, but in recent months a consensus has been reached that he is a player that Unai Emery needs to phase out of the team. This sense has been accelerated by the development of Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi and the additions of the popular Lucas Torreira and Dani Ceballos.

Back in April, I wrote reluctantly about Shkodran Mustafi’s fall from grace. In the article, I explained that I didn’t like writing hit-pieces about unpopular players. It goes against my nature a little, it feels brutal and besides which, it’s just too easy, it feels like punching down.

I wanted to write a fairly sensitive piece about how Xhaka has slowly become persona non grata but, truth be told, on Sunday he answered the question himself by steaming into Son Hueng Min in his own penalty area. It’s the sixth penalty he has frittered away in an Arsenal shirt. My personal breaking point with Xhaka arrived when he needlessly hauled down Solly March to give Brighton a penalty at the Emirates in May.

Even the usually sanguine match reporting of the BBC described it as “an absurd foul.” Xhaka has a way of fouling that is particularly offensive to the senses, because you can see the mischief coming from a mile off. It’s like watching a child give a not so subtle look over their shoulder before edging towards the cookie jar. His fouls on March and Son have proved to be the winter of our collective discontent with Xhaka.

Flashpoints such as these define careers because they produce such strong emotions when they happen. Gervinho, for example, was a wildly inconsistent player for Arsenal (which is to say he had lots of good games, as well as bad ones). He is mis-remembered as entirely hapless because of the oft-giffed miss against Bradford City in the League Cup; a match the Gunners went onto lose.

Arsenal fans have begun to associate Xhaka with last season’s failure, as his foul, the kind of which he makes far too often, proved so costly to the club’s Champions League aspirations. It was the metal pole that broke the camel’s back. Yet Granit is so interesting (if you’ll excuse my use of the word ‘interesting’) because these moments of madness occur so randomly.

A lot of the time, he plays with great maturity and calm and exudes the kind of authority that makes you understand why he’s a leading candidate for the captaincy. But he is like a landmine, primed to go off at any second. There doesn’t seem to be a particular set of circumstances that detonate his moments of stupidity. I’m not sure if it’s a response to pressure or a natural volatility, maybe somebody somewhere is nursing some kind of Xhaka voodoo doll that they accidentally step on every now and then.

His leadership skills are questionable because good leaders don’t jump overboard at the first sign of enemy fire. The good elements of Xhaka’s game are about control, especially technical control. Yet the less enjoyable elements are about a total lack of it. I think at this point one has to accept that it is baked into his DNA. My own theory is that he is a control freak. When the game is in front of him and the ball is perched on the end of his left boot, he is like a pig in shit.

When he loses control of a situation, or he has to turn and run back towards his own goal, his response to stress is blind panic. From a pig in shit to a pig in blanket in one small step. Emery, like Wenger, does seem to keep on picking him despite the costly brain farts, so why? Well, I think that privately, Emery would like to move on from Xhaka in the near future.

For a start, I cannot think of another good reason not to confirm him as club captain. During pre-season, when played with Guendouzi, it was the Frenchman dropping deeper to collect the ball from the centre-halves, with Xhaka playing more as a number 8. I suspect Emery has Guendouzi- a player he seriously values- earmarked to take the Swiss’ place.

So why the wait? Well, I am guessing (and I am just guessing) that with so many new players in the spine of the team already, Emery wants to wait for a more opportune moment. I think he sees this as an evolution rather than a revolution. The coach does rely on Xhaka, but he also relied on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan for long spells last season and neither have been spared the summer cull.

The tactical argument for reducing the dependence on Granit Xhaka is as convincing as the emotional argument. For all of Xhaka’s good passing, he is often slow and deliberate and so one-footed that it’s too easy for opponents to force him to pass backwards. Guendouzi is still a diamond in the rough, but he does much the same job in a quicker, more dynamic fashion.

Coaches at top end clubs tend to prefer to sit good passers at the base of their midfield. You can draw a line from Chelsea’s use of Jorginho and Kante to Arsenal’s use of Torreira and Xhaka. The Uruguayan is far more defensively suited to the position, but Xhaka is preferred for his passing range, so Torreira is often asked to do his hustling and shuffling in higher or wider positions.

I think Emery is planning to phase Xhaka out for Guendouzi, but he wants to do so gradually while supporters are ready for a clean break. It’s likely he wants to bed Luiz and Ceballos in a little more and wait for the full-backs to return. Once the worm turns with a fan base, it is difficult to convince them again- even good performances are lost in the fug of confirmation bias. Assuming my theory is correct, I see no reason to delay the handover at this stage.

Arsenal have lots of games this season, Xhaka need not be totally banished. Emery, by his own admission, sets his side up to be ‘chameleons’ so I am not convinced that we need wait much longer with the Xhaka fade-out. It’s not like Arsenal have ever been a settled unit under Emery and I am not sure they ever will be, so they might just as well move one more brick in this game of tactical jenga.

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