Thursday, June 20, 2024

The redemption of Granit Xhaka

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Granit Xhaka’s role has evolved over the last 18 months or so. The different deployment of Xhaka has been a really interesting development in Arteta’s Arsenal team. What is arguably even more interesting is how well he has taken to this new role.

On Sunday, Xhaka wore the captain’s armband in the absence of Martin Odegaard. Even a year ago, the thought of the Swiss officially captaining the team again felt like too much of a hot political potato to entertain. Even if, unofficially, or in the eyes of his teammates, Xhaka’s senior leadership role within the group never really diminished.

Indeed, the Arsenal Twitter admin felt comfortable enough about the current temperature around the player to post a photo of his shirt and captain’s armband. As the second half wore on in West London and Xhaka was playing in the area of the pitch close to the away support, he was serenaded consistently by fans who have seen an obvious uptick in his performances.

Everybody loves a redemption arc and Xhaka’s has Arsenal fans feeling warm and fuzzy. I have never doubted that Xhaka is a player more easily appreciated by coaches and teammates than he is supporters; but Arsenal fans are not experiencing a collective hallucination. He is receiving plaudits because he is playing better than he has at any point during his six years at the club.

Once again, the relationship between the player and the supporters which, not long ago, was at Cold War levels of tension, is totally mended. To the point that the Arsenal account could post a tweet asking fans to show their love for the player without fear of reprisal. Xhaka posted a humble video thanking the fans for their outpouring of love.

So what has driven this improvement in his performances? I think there are a few factors. The presence of Thomas Partey at the base of the midfield is an undoubtedly huge factor. Prior to Arteta switching Xhaka from the six to the left eight role, the Swiss was the spoke in the midfield wheel, receiving the ball from his centre-halves and distributing.

The problem was that Xhaka was often susceptible to being pressed. Playing at the base of the midfield also meant that he was responsible for a very large space defensively which, to my mind, did not match his athletic profile. Now Xhaka is responsible for a slither of the pitch rather than a huge circle.

He now operates in the left corridor, blending with the left-back and left-winger in different phases of play. Crucially, it means that when he does have to run backwards to win the ball back, he is dealing with a smaller space and is not the last line of defence. We have often seen him exposed and make rash decisions out of possession as a result.

Partey has a more suitable athletic profile to deal with that space and it has reduced Xhaka’s stress levels in an off-the-ball sense. Arsenal are a young team but in Partey and his usual back-up, Mohamed Elneny, the team have two contemporaries of a similar age and experience level to Xhaka. In a soft factor sense, I also think Xhaka has a preferable leadership role now too.

With experienced players like David Luiz, Alex Lacazette, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis, Bellerin, Mustafi, Leno and Özil gone, all of whom were senior players who had issues adapting to Arteta’s demands, Xhaka’s leadership role is clearer now. He is the longest serving member of the starting line-up and he has survived the cull of senior players (even if that seemed very unlikely at one point).

It’s a young team and he is very obviously the most senior figure in it, in terms of his age, experience, tenure at the club and his personality. While I think the decision to make Odegaard captain was the right one (generally, I think young teams should be captained by a younger player- look at the difference between Gallas and Fabregas as natural authority figures circa 2008), it absolutely makes sense that Xhaka is a big part of the leadership group.

It’s a nice reward for the player too, an acknowledgement that he has rehabilitated his reputation at the club and that ought to make him a source of inspiration for other players. In the footballing sense, I think he is better suited to being a more reactive player within the system, a foot soldier rather than a general. He is not charged with setting the tempo tactically but he is asked to help maintain the temperature.

His own improvement has also been helped along by the general improvement of the team, particularly on the left side of the pitch. Oleksandr Zinchenko has, effectively, replaced Nuno Tavares and Gabriel Jesus has replaced Alex Lacazette. Both of those swaps make Arsenal a far better team but that has a particular impact on Xhaka’s area of the field.

Xhaka and Zinchenko have built an early understanding and the presence of the Ukrainian means that Arsenal are more technically secure. Whereas Lacazette was static to the point that his feet were growing roots, Jesus likes to drift around the forward line, especially over to the left wing, which, in turn, allows Martinelli to move in-field.

With this attacking pattern around him, Xhaka has been able to pick up strong positions in the left half-space, with opposing defences far more occupied by Jesus and Martinelli’s interchange. We saw this at Brentford on Sunday, even before his very nice, clipped assist for Jesus, a loss of footing for Martinelli denied Xhaka another good assist from that space.

Xhaka has always talked up his creative gene, in this interview with the Guardian from November 2017, he describes himself as “a fake 10, a 10 who plays further back.” The framework around him is improved and that drives individual improvement. You could say exactly the same of Martinelli this season who looks a far better player alongside Jesus and Zinchenko / Tierney than he did alongside Lacazette and Tavares.

Now Xhaka is riffing with Zinchenko / Tierney, Jesus and Martinelli and that has guided his improvement. The player deserves immense credit for keeping his head down and quietly improving after what looked like a point of no return when he cussed the Emirates crowd and threw his captain’s armband on the floor back in October 2019.

It was an example of his impulsiveness and, for that reason, I doubted that he could ever accept a reduced tactical role in the team (in 2020-21 he averaged 85.6 touches per 90, last season that dropped to 68.2). He has more responsibility in a cerebral sense in a young team and, in a tactical sense, the team has reduced its dependence on him in terms of volume but, given his current form, he has probably never been more important to Arsenal than he is now.

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