Sunday, July 21, 2024

The Xhaka soup

There aren’t many players in Arsenal’s recent history more interesting and, at times, more confounding than Granit Xhaka. The Swiss is a cauldron of contradictions, dependable and reliable until he isn’t. A leader who is also liable to let you down on occasion.

I find his personality fascinating. He has an absolutely cast iron self belief and it makes him the player that he is. It means that he is utterly dependable but it often prevents him from properly assessing his mistakes. There again his hard headedness means that his errors don’t linger in his mind which is why they tend to be spaced out.

Mikel Arteta, like Unai Emery and Arsene Wenger before him, never plays without him by choice. Another of Xhaka’s most attractive qualities is his availability. Availability is one of the most underrated attributes in a footballer and Xhaka is rarely injured.

A lot of that will be down to fortune but I think it also speaks to his professionalism. He has played the majority of the minutes available since joining the club in 2016 and you don’t play week in and week out in Premier League midfields without looking after yourself to a very considerable standard.

Xhaka’s future was one of the many arrows slung in Mikel Arteta’s direction upon taking the Arsenal job. Not many players demonstratively tell their own fans to fuck off and survive (in the footballing sense, of course. Though there are plenty of countries where such an act would land you in physical danger with your own supporters!)

Persuading Xhaka to stay was quite the test of Arteta’s diplomatic skills and exactly the sort of issue that requires management as opposed to coaching. Xhaka stayed but I think he remains fairly unrepentant about the whole incident.

He is not the kiss and make up type by the looks of it and he has been relatively straightforward about his relationship with Arsenal fans, even though he has not been on the receiving end of any sort of stick since. It is clear that he has been willing to forget but not necessarily forgive.

It’s been not so much a Cold War between Xhaka and Arsenal as a hot peace. But I think that probably suits him, he strikes me as the type of character who is driven by grudges, I am sure it is part of what gets him up in the morning. The chip on his shoulder occasionally weighs him down but there is no doubt that it spurs him on too. It’s all part of the Xhaka melodrama.

This season, he has been assigned a new role. No longer is he the deepest midfielder, as he had been for the span of his Arsenal tenure. That role has been assigned to Thomas Partey, who forms the base of a central diamond.

Lacazette drops away from the front line to form the tip of that diamond, with Odegaard to the right and Xhaka to the left. We understand now why, despite Arteta’s admiration for Xhaka, the player was made available for transfer last summer. Roma played silly buggers for several months and couldn’t raise the capital that Arsenal wanted so, instead, Xhaka’s contract was slightly extended.

Again, it’s a scenario that illustrates the Xhaka melodrama, only he could spend 3/4 of a transfer window with a for sale sign around his neck, only to extend his contract in the end. But we understand why Arteta did initially regard him as expendable, he saw the shape of the team shifting away from the Swiss.

I think it’s always been relatively clear that Xhaka and Arsenal were in a holding pattern. Arteta clearly does not regard him as any kind of disaster area, so he prioritised other areas of the pitch to improve first. While other players were ushered out of the exit or paid to leave, Arsenal wanted good money for this player.

Really, I think we all know that Xhaka is keeping that left eight role warm for someone else, I think he knows that himself. To his credit, he performs the role without fuss, without fervour and he has been largely fine despite being asked to perform tasks that are not exactly aligned with his skillsets.

His influence on the team has been allowed to wane, this season he is averaging 46.2 passes per 90. Last season it was 69.5. The keys to the midfield have been tossed to Thomas Partey and Xhaka does not seem to have undergone a fit of ego adjusting to this fact.

It remains to be seen whether that situation will resolve this summer, I imagine in terms of priorities, a new striker (or two!) probably trump the Xhaka replacement in the shortlist. It also remains to be seen whether Xhaka will be sold once a new midfielder is signed.

I imagine the player would rather leave once that piece of the puzzle is placed. While he has been professional enough to embrace a new role I think his professional pride would probably be too hurt to become a squad player and, frankly, fair enough.

Xhaka is highly driven and that is another of his positive qualities. I will be fascinated to see how Granit is regarded in retrospect, many years after he has left the club. Part of that will be driven by who replaces him, if the next midfielder is a solid gold star, that will impact Xhaka’s standing.

If he is not, the player will be remembered more fondly and maybe Arsenal fans will appreciate his qualities more. It is impossible to consider the player without acknowledging his obvious flaws but part of the contradiction of the player, is that his flaws and his qualities all emanate from the same place, that lingering sense of grievance and injustice. Like a man with a fork in a world of soup.

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