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Granit Xhaka: Million dollar game, five cent head

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He’s good, but he also needs to be smart.

Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League
not a proud moment
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

To launch this article, I was going to do an in-depth comparison of the disciplinary records of Patrick Vieira and Granit Xhaka. Trouble is, everywhere I look reports different numbers for overall numbers of yellow/two yellow/red in a career, so I’m not sure how verifiable any of them are without going game by game over 9 years of Vieira data and an equal amount of Xhaka data, which, well, I have a job and a life so that ain’t happening.

Instead, I’ll just pick a source that I usually use, transfermarkt, for each player (soccerway’s generally better but it doesn’t have ANY disciplinary data for Vieira, so I’ll go with transfermarkt). According to transfermarkt, then:

Patrick Vieira (Arsenal only, league only): 9 seasons, 71 yellow, 6 two yellows, 2 straight red
Granit Xhaka (League only, all teams): 8 seasons, 56 yellow, 7 two yellows, 4 straight red

What do those numbers tell us? Not much, on their own. I mean, they’re not all that different - they both accumulate cards at about the same ~7ish yellows per season. Granit’s got more straight reds, but otherwise they’re basically the same player, disciplinarily speaking.

Don’t worry - this is not another HE’LL TURN OUT TO BE THE NEXT VIEIRA article. What it is, though, is an attempt to cut through the “he’s a big stupid dumbface and Arsenal wasted their money” that is starting to build around Granit Xhaka.

First: he is a big stupid dumbface. I mean, his sendings-off have all been for things that fall under the category of “dude, you should know better”. Even if the Burnley red was a type of red that’s very rarely called, it’s still a red by the letter of the law. It was a stupid foul to start with, and given that it was a player he had tangled with in the first half, it may have been a stupid retaliatory foul, which is arguably worse - or at least unequivocally dumber.

But here’s the thing: Arsenal fans have, for years, been screaming for a solid, stud defensive midfielder, and for Arsenal to be harder, or tougher, or have more steel, or whatever. Guess what? This is what harder, tougher, more steely looks like. I don’t know if this is a valid comp or not, but I compare Granit Xhaka’s first season at Arsenal to Randy Johnson’s first couple seasons as an Expo and a Mariner - The Big Unit had himself a billion dollar arm with no control of it whatsoever. He learned control, and all of a sudden, he was Cy Young and World Series winning Randy Johnson.

Where that comp falls apart a bit, of course, is with experience - Randy Johnson’s control problems came when he was a very young player, and Granit Xhaka’s in his ninth professional season. But he’s a newbie in England now, and hopefully Arsene Wenger and just general exposure to the way the Premier League plays will help him understand when to be hard and when to be smart (and ideally, how to be both).

Is it great that Xhaka commits stupid fouls? No, it is not. But will he learn? I believe that this is where the Vieira comp does have some merit. Everyone from coaches to pundits to fans says that it takes time to acclimatize to the Premier League’s style of play, and if you’re a physical player, I’d argue that the acclimatization process is both longer and more visible for DM’s, as they try to figure out where the league’s referees draw the line between hard-edged play and being a dangerous foul machine.

So while I think Granit Xhaka did a stupid thing stupidly today, and while I think this learning process isn’t happening as quick as I would like, I’m also not willing to write him off after just over half a season; people didn’t think Vieira would “figure it out” either, but he did - and he became one of the most acclaimed DM’s in Premier League history in the process. And again, I’m not saying that’s automatically where Xhaka’s heading, but I think he’s talented enough that he can, if he can just get out of his own way.

A lot of the carded fouls Xhaka commits are borne of frustration or tiredness, or frustration stemming from tiredness; if he can just dial in his patience a bit, and maybe understand the league a little better, he will be a very valuable asset to Arsenal. I just hope he learns what he needs to learn in order to get there, and I remain optimistic that he will.