The Curious Case of Granit Xhaka’s time at Arsenal

Over the last decade, with the exception of Ozil, no player has been as divisive among the Arsenal fanbase as Granit Xhaka. His relationship with the Gooners has been tempestuous to say the least, rising to its zenith when he was booed off against Crystal Palace and told the fans in no uncertain terms what he thought of their response. That is the thing with Granit Xhaka, there are no uncertain terms. He plays his football with an honest passion that can be both his greatest asset and his biggest downfall.
Xhaka arrived with much fanfare and high expectations. The hope was that here was the commanding midfielder that Arsenal had lacked since Vieira. He had two Swiss titles to his name and was named in the Bundesliga team of the Year as well as being Borrusia Monchengladbach’s captain, all before his 23rd birthday. Over the next few seasons the team struggled and Xhaka did too and his seemingly most notable contributions were red cards, penalties conceded and own goals. But this is a narrative hugely eschewed by the circumstances.
The expectations were indeed huge, and Xhaka was seen as the man who would bring back former glories. But he arrived during the demise of the Wenger era and through the ill-fated Emery reign. This was a team that boasted players of the quality of Mustafi and Kolasinac, and had the work rate of Ozil. Xhaka’s box to box role was primarily taken up with plugging gaps. Fans noticed the mistimed tackles resulting in cards, but failed to recognize the lung bursting runs as attacks broke down and we were left exposed. They bemoaned the penalties and own goals, but allowed no credit for the desperate exposure that Xhaka was attempting to remedy.
The old Arsenal team alongside Xhaka
What is notable about Xhaka was that he has been an ever-present through the tenures of three managers, all of whom are lauded for their tactical acumen. Arteta went to great lengths to convince him to remain when his departure seemed inevitable, and would prove to be a very unpopular move with the fan base who wanted him gone. When he was made captain it was a decision made by the other players as it was a democratic process. This highlights that, although unpopular with fans, he was hugely respected by his managers and team mates.
Two particularly poignant opinions on Xhaka may be the most revealing. Mourinho was desperate to sign him for Roma and he stated ‘Arsenal will only recognize what they had once he is gone’. When asked in an interview which midfielders playing today most resemble him, Patrick Vieira immediately replied Granit Xhaka ‘because he does all the important things that you don’t always see’.
And therein lies Xhaka’s conundrum. He contributes massively in less obvious manners. He reads the play and reacts. He narrows down the options available to attackers with clever positioning or teases them into making decisions that are not as incisive. When an Arsenal attack breaks down fans should pay attention to where Xhaka is looking. He instantly scans backwards and then races into a position where he feels he would be most disruptive to a counter attack. In the past when the team was less cohesive this would frequently result in him making a last ditch tackle, or attempting to, as he is overwhelmed by the oppositions options.
Make no mistake about it, there were times when the red mist appeared and Xhaka made some poor decisions as a result. He is abrasive and argumentative on the pitch. But this is passion and it is an integral part of his character. I would prefer that every day over the care less shrugs offered from the Ozils or Arshavins when they lost the ball.
Xhaka had his name chanted on Sunday and he was visibly moved. I hope that the fans are forgiving when we are suffering and a desperate last minute lunge sees Xhaka staring disbelievingly at the red card brandished by a ref as he is punished for his efforts when trying to help his team yet again.
Peter Doherty

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34 Comments

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  1. I also have a similar opinion about Xhaka’s positional play and tactical understanding

    His previous managers seemed to have known about his strengths, but they failed to minimize his weaknesses and couldn’t find a role that suits him the most

    Hopefully he can help Arsenal win EL this season

  2. He was never devisive, he was never controversial. He is a professional and a good person who has always given his all, commanding a tremendous respect from his peers and fellow professionals..

    Who some fans decided to hate and wish him and his family harm for no reason whatsoever. Bad people..

  3. Well well well 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼
    I watched the Patrick Vieira interview too. Makes you wonder if managers like Wenger,Emery,Arteta, Mourinho and Vieira are all dumb or somehow biased for placing so much importance on Xhaka’s contribution on the pitch, while armchair and FIFA consoles managers knows best.
    I constantly got criticized for defending Xhaka a lot just as I defended Arteta

    Meanwhile the “He contributes nothing to the team and we’ll never win anything or be a top team with him” gang incoming

    1. If Xhaka plays like how he had played in the past without the free role I think “He contributes nothing to the team and we’ll never win anything or be a top team with him” that’s why a lot of us wasn’t happy with him
      I did ask the question….why didn’t Wenger and Emery didn’t play Xhaka in a free role and why didn’t Arteta do it last season……?

  4. People have to just curb their biased dislike towards Xhaka.
    The guy is a honest trier, honest fighter and always gives his all even if sometimes it’s not good enough.

    But can’t ask anymore of the guy.

    People have this predisposed dislike for him tha always clouds their objective analysis of him. They are always looking for the negatives and only the negatives about his game.

    How can one be honest and Objective with such an already made up conclusion?

    It was Giroud and Xhaka. Now that Giroud left Xhaka has had to take all the flak on his own.

  5. Thank you, a very nice article.
    I also think Xhaka should be praised for a 100% commitment to the current project. At his age, it could be discouraging to see priority given to long term development and not to immediate or short term success.

  6. And Xhaka has never been a divisive personality. I can never remember him putting the club into disrepute like some other overrated, overhyped, overpaid and over pampered weasels / primadonnas.

    The only time he couldn’t take the constant undeserved abuse was when he told our abusive idiotic fans at the emirates to “Fck Off”.
    They all deserved it for pushing the guy to the limit.

  7. I don’t think he was playing as a box to box midfielder before, and I think you’re massively overstating his contributions in previous seasons.
    My view is that he has been a fairly average midfielder for years (by our standards), but the tweak arteta has introduced has enlightened me to the fact that there was always a very good player in there, the problem was that he was previously played in a role that he’s totally unsuited to – we wanted him to be our xabi alonso, but, despite having a very good left foot, he’s just not the type of player who can sit in midfield and be truly effective. Not in our teams at least.
    Our previous managers therefore rightly identified that he was a very good player, but used him in completely the wrong way, and got consistently mediocre-to-poor results – it’s not that the fans are all crazy, we can only go by what we see. It all looks to have changed now, and in dramatic fashion. It speaks volumes about arteta’s understanding of the game that he was the one to see this issue and sort it out.
    Good luck to Granit Xhaka – he’s found his feet and I wish him well.

    1. I am a Gooner living in Switzerland. To the Swiss, Xhaka is #1 on the team sheet and has always played brilliantly and passionately. Thankfully, Mikel at last seems to play him in his Swiss role (no pun intended), and he and we are thriving. He is even in my FF team!

      1. I was under the impression he was an important player for the Swiss national side, but for whatever reason he wasn’t often so good for arsenal – well I think we know the reason now.
        I see him in a different light now – it’s tough to keep going as he has done over the years when he’s had to play well within himself and taken stick for it. I just hope he can continue the season as he’s started it because he’s really looking like a top midfielder in this role.

  8. I much liked the way this article gets to whole truth. My own personal dislike of Xhaka’s play -not him, but his play, an important distinction – has been based on the fact he is combative and that has lead to hot headedness, a great deal.

    I also do not like his slowness of personal running nor slowness in moving the ball onwards. We cannot sensibly or truthfully deny that.

    But, looking at the positive side, he DOES have huge commitment and his will to win is second to none. Those are also important qualities and ones to which I, among many others , have given far too little importance.

    NOW that he is playing much further forward he is becoming effective, dangerous going forwards and has cut out the lunging mistimed tackles and thus has transformed dhimself into a highly effective player.

    I have often said on JA that when facts change, only a fool does not change their thinking accordingly.

    I have now done so, based entirely on current, not old evidence, of how well he is playing.

    I am not a fool and so it gives me enormous pleasure to see him become a key and widely recognised as such, player in our team. AND therefore, to change my opinion.

    1. Always good to see fans who aren’t so invested in position that they can’t reevaluate when faced with new evidence. Good on you.

      I’ve always been in the pro-Xhaka camp although last season felt he should leave for his own good based on a) the level of criticism he was receiving from our fanbase and b) what I perceive as an unfair bias against him by officials (admitedly some of which he brings upon himself).

      I’m delighted that he has turned it around and all credit to him. Equally I’m delighted that I don’t have to hide behind the sofa when he is left defending a one-on-one in the box against a nimble attacker. For that one, all credit Arteta.

  9. There are two things worth noting.
    1. Xhaka was brought in to play a different role under AW and UE… with a completely different squad of players around him.
    2. Mikel Arteta has changed the playing squad and, it seems, always knew what Xhaka would be able to produce, playing the system MA wanted.

    Apart from the Brentford booking, Xhaka has been one of our most consistent players and deserves all the credit he is getting.
    That also applies to MA of course, let’s not forget his part in this success story… and I include Elneny in this, such a pity he got injured when Mikel was also bringing out the best of him as well.

  10. Fellow players and five very good on field coaches hold and have always held Shaka in high esteem. Yes, not silly pundits at liberrty to change their opinions on a whim or fans in moments. He has been a permanent fixture in all teams since his arrival. It is safe to say, the poor teams and tactics of our team impacted his game. Now with better responsible players, Shaka is limited to do what he does best. We owe him a lot. Even here on JA, there are those who still wanted Tielemans to repolace Shaka. Mourinho would have given us Tielemans for free in exchange of buying Shaka. Glad he is in for a long haul with us.

  11. A very good article by the writer on Xhaka.

    How fans consistently sought to disrespect and jeer this player is beyond me,

    Am happy for the player his family and his connections, though a public apology from pundits and fans alike could go a long way.

  12. Like Jon Fox, I had to change my mind about him. For me this happened after the Newcastle game last year when he was the only one prepared to face up to the cameras after that debacle and I started understanding the mentor he was becoming for the younger players. Most people were confused as to what I was writing that day.

    For me he has shown great character from being booed by his own fans to being stripped of captaincy and never downing tools and doing his best even though it was deemed insufficient. Now that has ended up in the just rewards for a model professional and human being.

  13. A gentle reminder that Xhaka only got a red card over the last two seasons.

    Plays over 45 games per season, never injured

    Yet ……fans are demanding for his upgrade.

    1. Those points are not convincing if he’s not playing well enough. I’d rather a brilliant player who gets the odd injury than a mediocre one who’s always fit.
      Anyway, hopefully we’re past all that now and xhaka has started showing his true quality – now that fact he rarely misses games is a huge bonus

  14. To my eyes, Xhaka has been transformed into a very good box to box player. Discipline wise, if he had got 4 yellow cards so far, he would get slaughtered, but funny how Jesus is on the cusp of a ban, no one seems to mind.

  15. To be frank, I have been less than kind to him for a while. I’m ashamed that I was bashing such a talented man, it’s criminal! I love him in his new role, I just wish I could meet him one day and apologize.

  16. OT – Is there any one here who could get to Arteta and tell him not to permit TP5 to play any games for Ghana this 2 week period, Ghana have already qualified for WC and he wouldn’t be really needed by his country this international break. We wouldn’t want him to pick up an unnecessary injury and he needs to recuperate and get fully fit.
    His partnership with xhaka is of high importance this October.

  17. I am happy that fans are seeing the best of Granit Xhaka and are now appreciating him. All of those great coaches were not stupid persisting with Xhaka.

  18. Honestly speaking, before I’ve never rated him. I felt he is average and not to Arsenal standard basically as a DM but I noticed he has good passing range and uses his body very well. The role he is playing now is bringing the best out of him and I’m seeing a different player.

  19. I have been one of his biggest critics but all respect to him this season he has played a major part on us sitting top of the league
    MA has deployed him much further forward and if he makes a mistake it is further up the field where we can recover
    I also believe we can do better and an upgrade has to be on the cards but what he seems to have given the team is leading from the front to hats of to him.
    I do worry when we come up against the better teams but for now he is doing a sterling job for us and the team

    1. Perhaps Zinchenko will compete with Xhaka for that midfield role when Tavares returns from loan.

      We would have a stout defender in Tierney, and a more attacking option in Tavares in the LB position.

      We will have so many more options in setting up the starting 11 than a couple years ago.

  20. I was never against Xhaka but once when he disrespected the club’s fans at the Ems. That his unruly attitude to the fans and his unrepenttance stance that followed, led me to call his axing by the club. And which Emery took up to discipline him by banning him from the team and stripped him off the club’s captaincy armband.
    But Arteta came to his rescue to retain him in the team after Emery was sacked. Amf Xhaka seems to be on redemption path at Arsenal ever since Arteta came on board as the Arsenal manager. With the pair relationship looking to have jelled.
    And now that Xhaka is looking to have rediscovered his game for Arsenal particularly in the EPL as his game in the team is looking to be on the ups Thank to Arteta who has redeployed him to the position in the team that’s best suit his style of playing.
    But is Xhaka the only Arsenal player who Arteta has switched to another position in the team this seaso? Which has improved the the player and the team performance in the EPL. And which as a result has now seen Arsenal topping the table at week 8 into the campaign. No. Not at all. What of Ben White who Arteta has switched from central defence to right fullback?
    And the switching has worked and still working but which looks to be giving Tomiyasu a headache in his bid to reclaim his right fullback position starting role in the team after he returned from injury layoff.
    But which next Gunners switching that Arteta should do this season? Which if he does may up the switched Gunners and the team performance on the up in the EPL this season. Martinelli should be switched to the leftwinger role, with Saka being switched to the rightwinger role? Which if Arteta agrees to implement in our EPL two big game matches at home against Tottenham Hs and Liverpool could see our forwards improved drastically on their goals scoring rate to the upward trajectory to consequently decimates both Tottenham and Liverpool scoring goals in galore againss the duo big team when the League resume after the international break.

  21. Is he really that good this season and wouldn’t a fully fit Smith Rowe have been able to do the same things with more class and style? There are so many contradictions from those commenting above, such as” I wouldn’t want to see him in a one on one challenge in our penalty area”. But isn’t this what we need him to do when the going gets tough. And Xhaka was a disgrace against Newcastle at Tyncastle. He and his mid field partner Elneny were pedestrians for the entire game and completely overwhelmed. Xhaka then came out swinging at the younger players post game. Yes, Granite that’s what leaders do. If he has hit a purple patch long may it run because this season is starting to look like one of those where all the stars may align in Arsenal’s favour. However expecting Xhaka to continue this incident free run indefinitely is ridiculous. He is 30, he is slow, he has a limited skills set; as Wegner said, he can’t tackle and he is Granite Xhaka not De Broyne.

  22. I like Granit Xhaka when he first moved to Arsenal. His tactical knowledge and positional play brought much balance to the team, although at the expense of himself. His humility, loyalty and passion got my respect in a time where The Emirates were a toxic pool. I like him more since the day he bravely locked horns with the toxic fans on that fateful day. It was inevitable and I couldn’t think of stronger player to face it than Granit Xhaka hence his current position at the club today. Through hard work and sheer bloody will, he is easily one of the best midfielders in EPL right now. Then, I wondered where Arsenal supporters are. At Brentford, I knew. As they say, you will find your best friends at the battlefield.

  23. An impressive article and extremely valid and factual points. Xhaka now seems to have the right players around him, and he’s taken to the new role magnificently. Long may this continue.

  24. Forget about the fans being forgiving..what about those who abused him and his family?it would be nice if they could apologise,no??

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