Fair play to Granit Xhaka.
He is someone who I have had some frustrations with down the years, but credit where it’s due – he is performing at a very high level right now. I don’t think it’s just this season either, his good form goes back some way and I think that needs to be acknowledged too.
The fact that fans are regularly singing his name, for essentially the first time in his Arsenal career, tells you that a relationship that once looked damaged beyond repair has now been healed. Not for everyone, of course. Your mileage may vary on how you view the events of October 2019 during that Crystal Palace game, but without excusing anything, I always felt like that moment was something of a lightning rod for more wide-ranging frustrations – for both fans the player himself. The volcanic eruption had been brewing beneath the surface for some time.
Still, if you’d told me then that a few years later, Xhaka would be wearing the captain’s armband (as he did on Sunday) and have his name sung by the travelling fans, I think I’d have suggested your time machine was a bit faulty. But that’s exactly where we are, and at a time when there’s a lot of positivity around Arsenal, this is another element which I think says a lot about how fans are feeling right now.
The Granit Xhaka Redemption is not a story I’d have invested a lot of time in, and it hasn’t been plain sailing all the way. There have been some red cards, some of which – to be fair – were definitely Granit Xhaka reds and not normal reds, but then rightly or wrongly, if anyone knows the ITWGX Index (If That Was Granit Xhaka) then it’s Granit Xhaka. Last summer there was a serious flirtation with/interest from Roma, and it looked as if he might go, but throughout Mikel Arteta has been a constant.
As other players have departed, often in acrimonious circumstances, he has always wanted Xhaka to stay and deserves some credit for this current form and influence the Swiss international has on the team right now. I suspect the manager sees something of himself in Xhaka. A hard working, super professional midfielder who has talent, a nice eye for a pass, can keep things ticking, and crack in the occasional belter from outside the box; but who exists just below the very top level talent. Which isn’t a criticism, it’s just reality.
On that basis, what Arteta is getting out of Xhaka in this ‘new’ position is really quite something, and certainly more than I expected. I thought Ian Wright’s analysis of him on MOTD2 the other night (which you can find at the top of the video page here), excellently highlighted how well he’s playing this role. Not only does he look more mobile, getting around the pitch and in areas we rarely saw him, he is quicker on the ball – which is where I had most doubts about him. It wasn’t so much of a case I thought he couldn’t do it, but because of where he used to pick up possession, he hadn’t really done it before and certainly played with more touches than he does now.
The early Martinelli chance against Brentford is a good example of how this change of role is effective. As we go down the right, he is in our half, but he makes the forward run, the quick feet from both him and Martinelli fashion the chance, and it was a shame the Brazilian slipped. The assist for Gabriel Jesus was top class, and I do think there’s an element of teams not really expecting Xhaka to be a threat in these areas of the pitch – and it’ll be interesting to see if there’s more defensive focus on him going forward.
I remember when we signed him back in 2016, Arsene Wenger was asked about the role he saw him in, and said:
I personally prefer him as a box to box player, because he has the engine, the power, the long pass, he likes to come deep and distribute the game. I think as well he has the engine to make an impact with his runs.
It was always a bit confusing to me that he seemed to be off the mark on this one, because we never really saw Xhaka in that kind of role. Arsene himself even rowed back on that after some time, labelling him a defensive midfielder (among other things), but it looks as if his first instincts were absolutely right.
Anyway, long may this good form last, especially as it’s hard not to be worried about the injury record of our other senior, first choice central midfielder. I also liked his quote, after the Brentford game, where he talked about the perception of Arsenal right now:
The teams are respecting us much more and they are seeing us in a different way. It is good but nothing to be too proud about as there is still a long way to go.
I don’t know if we’ve completely turned the tables, but I do think the idea of Arsenal as a soft-touch is getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Plenty still do, of course, but there’s a reason why some of the half-arsed pundit class are moaning about giving a 15 year old a debut: it’s because that’s all they can find to be negative about, and even that is straw-clutching of the highest order from miserable nitwits.
Let’s keep it up.