Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Xhaka’s Redemption Song

Football fans love nothing more than a redemption story. Arsenal fans of a certain vintage will remember Emmanuel Eboue, Perry Groves, those of you older than me might even remember Jon Sammels. I think some of the redemptive qualities these players take one are a manifestation of fan guilt.

Most of us who have been inside a football stadium will be able to call things we might have said, thought or shouted at the top of our lungs that probably embarrass us away from the heat of those moments. I know that I have and that I continue to do so (albeit on fewer occasions than I did when I was younger!)

The cycle Emmanuel Eboue went through was, I think, underscored by a feeling of shame for how he was received by the home support when he was subbed against Wigan in December 2008. There was a huge overcompensation thereafter where Eboue was recast as a kind of sympathetic class clown figure.

John Jensen experienced a different type of cycle; he became a figure of irony based on his (lack of) goal scoring record. Again, that felt a little niche and emanates from a time when we knew so little about the players our clubs signed. Arsenal fans heard Arsenal were signing John Jensen and the first thing they saw him do was score in the final of Euro 92 and, from that, we extrapolated that he would be a rich source of goals (his scoring record during his career was never prolific).

However, I am not quite sure I have seen a player redemption arc quite like Granit Xhaka’s. When he goaded the home crowd into booing him off the field in October 2019, if you had asked me which was more likely in the future, a global pandemic, or a full Emirates crowd signing, ‘Granit Xhaka we want you to stay’, I am not sure which one I would have considered more absurd.

In truth, I think there was always a small sense of closed ranks around Xhaka. ‘If that was Xhaka’ became a regular trending topic on Twitter every time a referee showed a little leniency towards an industrial challenge in another game. There was always the sense to me that we, as Arsenal fans, were allowed to criticise him but that everyone else had him wrong.

I think Xhaka’s performances improved the minute Mikel Arteta walked into the door. In 2021-22, his role changed with the arrival of Martin Odegaard, with Partey dropping to the base of midfield and Xhaka and Odegaard operating as ‘free 8s.’ City do something similar with de Bruyne and Gundogan.

Odegaard is the de Bruyne of the team, he is the ‘on ball’ 8. Xhaka’s role shift saw him become the Gundogan of the team, as the ‘off ball’ 8. Xhaka’s redemption has come to light this season because Gabriel Jesus re-energised the front line and Zinchenko transformed the midfield and Arsenal’s left-side became far more activated.

On the left-wing, Gabriel Martinelli enjoyed his most productive season in an Arsenal shirt and a lot of that is because the team’s entire left side became far more productive. Xhaka was a key beneficiary of that too and one of the main reasons that people have really noticed his improvement and the alteration in his role is because he scored nine goals this season. His previous best season total was four.

When Arsenal signed Thomas Partey, on the Arsenal Vision Podcast we talked about whether Xhaka would accept no longer being the totem pole at the base of the team. Our psychoanalysis proved to be wrong. Prior to Partey’s arrival, Xhaka sat at the base of the midfield and was the chief distributor.

That suited his profile as a passer but it did not suit his athletic profile at all. He was very competent at receiving the ball from the centre-halves and recycling it. Off the ball, however, manning the flood barrier just didn’t suit him at all because he isn’t an explosive athlete, he is an endurance athlete.

This is illustrated by his fitness record during his time at the club. Essentially, he was injured once, at the beginning of the 2021-22 season and even then, he came back earlier than the prognosis suggested. Xhaka is more marathon runner than sprinter and this, largely off-ball, role is more suited to his athletic profile.

SeasonTouches per 90

The data in the table above shows that the number of touches he takes per game has dipped massively over the last few seasons and it’s difficult to argue that this has not correlated directly with an improvement in performance. The left-eight role suits him as an athlete because he isn’t asked to cover small spaces.

Just look at that block at St. James’ Park towards the end of the season as an exemplar, steeple running from one end of the pitch to the other to make a last-ditch block. He is physically far more equipped for this job than he would have been to sprint into a small space and douse the fire quickly.

Only now have I begun to understand Arsene Wenger’s confusion over whether the Xhaka is a number six or a box-to-box midfielder. I think the conclusion I have come to this season is the opposite of the consensus, I don’t think we should be surprised that he adapted to this new role so well, I think the most natural conclusion is not that he surprisingly adapted to a new role but that Arsenal miscast him for many years and this was the role he was always primed for.

He hasn’t been sent off since this position change. His yellow cards per season total at Arsenal has read: 5, 10, 10, 10, 7, 10, 4. Arsenal expected Xhaka to be the player that informs the rhythm and tempo of a game but I don’t think that’s who he is. This season I think we have latched onto the idea that he is not a General but he is the best Lieutenant that you could ask for.

The same way that being a great MP doesn’t necessarily make you a good Prime Minister. Lieutenants are leaders too but being good at your job and leading by example that way and making decisions for your organisation are different things, whatever your profession.

Xhaka’s redemption arc is not necessarily driven by narrative or a desire to prove people wrong (I don’t entirely rule those out as motivating factors). I don’t think he really changed either. Instead, what has happened is that the coach found a role for him that suited his attributes and that allowed the redemption arc to complete.

That has made it easier to appreciate some of the intangible elements he brings to the team. Xhaka really seems to be a player that coaches and teammates appreciate more than fans. He has that bigger brother / first man to throw hands on your behalf in the pub car park feel that I think really matters to people inside a club.

Most of all, I was delighted that he got his day in the sun against Wolves with a brace and a knowing second half substitution that allowed him to soak up some individual accolade. It’s not difficult to understand why a four-year contract elsewhere is attractive to the player and it’s not difficult to understand why Arsenal shouldn’t match that offer. In the end, the circumstances of his departure are kind of perfect and that’s the real redemption story here.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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