Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Damn it, Granit

One of the key principles of sound critical thinking is the acceptance that life is chaotic and messy and there aren’t always easy answers. Sometimes we have to plump for the least-worst option rather than the ideal option and very often, two competing facts can be true at the same time. Understandably, as a species we try to reject this chaos as much as we can.

That’s why religion maintains its popularity after all these centuries, it offers satisfying answers to complicated questions. It offers certainty where there is none. However, chaos and contradiction are a part of life and at no time is that more apparent than during a pandemic when the need to arrive at herd immunity collides directly with the need to dodge plague and pestilence.

All of which brings me, not very neatly (aptly enough) to Granit Xhaka. Xhaka is the epitome of some of the contradictions that govern life. The Swiss midfielder is both super reliable and reliably unreliable. He brings order to Arsenal’s midfield but, just occasionally, he brings chaos too. During his five years at Arsenal, he has been known to drop a little LSD into the salt-shaker to make things interesting.

Granit is the living embodiment of that thing that you cannot live with but that you cannot live without. He brings structure to the Arsenal midfield and three different Arsenal coaches have relied on him with ruthless consistency. During his five seasons in North London, he has started 153 of the 161 Premier League games that he has been available for. (This doesn’t include the period where he was omitted from the Arsenal team for his theatrical response to the cat calls of the Emirates crowd).

At least 90% of the time, maybe more, Xhaka is a very reliable performer. In fact, he very rarely has bad games. The issue is that he has been prone to bad moments. Nobody cares how many times you deliver the post correctly, if you accidentally post your shit through someone’s letter box every six months, that is what your customers will remember of your time as their postman.

However, largely, he sits tucked into his cubbyhole on the left side of the midfield, just ahead of the centre-halves but just behind the left-back and he does Xhaka things. He gets the ball, he delivers it at a good pace to a teammate and then he gets back into his den and repeats the action when needed. He holds the oxygen tank for the team- it’s just that every now and then he might accidentally puncture it with his pen knife, leaving his colleagues gasping for air.

His lack of speed, especially on the turn, means that Arsenal have to hide his weaknesses by putting him in an area of the pitch where his flaws cannot be exposed. Arteta, himself a deep lying playmaker, has managed this better than Wenger or Emery did. He has coaxed the best from Xhaka and the Swiss’ more erratic tendencies have been less pronounced under Arteta’s guidance.

Since his needless red card against Burnley in November, I happen to think Xhaka’s form has been exemplary. Even his error at Turf Moor in March, when he accidentally slammed a pass into Ashley Barnes’ gut which flew into Bernd Leno’s goal, it did not have the same odour of your more bone-headed Xhaka error. This was a technical error and that really is a rarity for the player. It felt less like one of his trademark rushes of blood to the head and more the kind of thing that just happens from time to time. Like stubbing your toe on your coffee table.

However, the extent to which Arsenal have to ‘hide’ his flaws also limits the extent to which they can be enterprising off the ball. Xhaka is a goldilocks midfielder and Arteta needs his engine room to become a little more dynamic and multi-functional. Arsenal absolutely have depended on Granit Xhaka and that, for reasons that are not all his fault, has really been the issue.

The other contradiction at the heart of this confusing player is his character. He is feted by his teammates and his coaches as a leader and you can definitely see leadership in him. Not just in moments like his crimson-faced address to his Swiss teammates prior to their penalty shootout win over France a few weeks ago.

He is, to borrow a term from Arsene Wenger, a technical leader too. Despite his occasional penchant for slipping on a banana skin, face first into a custard pie, he also gives the team a kind of routine. Yet sometimes he gives you the impression that he is the opposite of a leader, when exposed, he has a tendency to become a flapper and allows alarm to overtake him.

My Arsenal Vision podcast colleague @YankeeGunner describes Xhaka as someone whose personality is bigger than their talent. That doesn’t mean that Xhaka is not talented, he is, it’s just that while his talent is significant his personality is gargantuan and sometimes he allows his instincts to be his master rather than his servant.

Sometimes he allows his emotions to dictate to him and he loses control, as we saw when he flung his captain’s armband to the ground and taunted a grumpy Emirates crowd during a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019. His immediate reaction to that incident was to ask to leave and to try to move to the very first club that demonstrated any interest in Hertha Berlin.

He was convinced to remain eventually and, in doing so, Xhaka’s coach rescued him from another hotheaded error in joining a Hertha Berlin team that narrowly avoided Bundesliga relegation last season. It is curious that a player so reliable at setting the rhythm of the team can be so arhythmic at the same time.

Deep lying playmakers tend to get a harsh press (literally- on the pitch, and figuratively- in the arena of public opinion), as many modern managers fight between the need for a destroyer at the base of the midfield and the need for a ball-player. A player that can do both to a high level is very rare indeed so often deep lying playmakers are lamented for what they are not rather than celebrated for what they are. (See Jorginho at Chelsea, for example).

In the summer of 2016, Arsenal parted with approximately £70m on Xhaka and Mustafi to form a new and exciting spine for the team. They haven’t qualified for the Champions League ever since which, though reductive, is a telling fact. Arsenal have already moved on Mustafi (and now Luiz) and look primed to usher in the era of Ben White at right centre-half. The replacement for Xhaka will be even more critical for Arsenal’s fortunes in the coming seasons- his is an enormously important role for the team.

Even by the standards of the much-maligned DLP, Xhaka has been a walking mass of contradictions. Setting Xhaka free to a Serie A club coached by a manager in Jose Mourinho who will certainly protect the space around him feels right somehow- assuming Roma produce the readies (or else Arsenal get bored of waiting and drop their demands).

At 29, the time is right for player and club to part and bring the curtain down on an occasionally abusive relationship. The next step, signing Thomas Partey’s new midfield partner, will go a long way to defining Arsenal’s trajectory for the next few seasons. Arteta and Edu have to get this signing spot on.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

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