Granit Xhaka has had an up and down start to his second season with Arsenal. After coming to North London from Borussia Mönchengladbach, the Swiss International had some trouble adjusting to life with Arsenal. He struggled with discipline problems, picking up a couple red cards, and didn’t seem to have the best chemistry with his fellow midfielders.
However, after Arsenal’s formation change, Xhaka started to play really well. In the 3-4-2-1 formation, playing in a double pivot along Ramsey, Xhaka began to shine. His long passing and defense were a huge asset to Arsenal down the stretch and was instrumental in Arsenal winning another FA Cup. He was one of the better deep lying midfielders in England in the second half of the season.
Given how strongly he finished last season, much was expected out of Xhaka this season. Wenger decided to stick with the 3-4-2-1, and Xhaka could reasonably be expected to continue to play well and be Arsenal’s main facilitator out of the midfield.
To say the least, it’s been a mixed bag of results so far. Xhaka continues to be a sure starter, but has struggled a bit and has become a scapegoat for many supporters as well as members of the media — unfairly in some cases I may add — and many are calling for him to be replaced in the starting 11.
On the bright side his discipline issues have not been a problem for Arsenal this season, only picking up one yellow through the first ten matches.
His long shooting continues to be a threat for Arsenal. He has a powerful shot and is one of the few Arsenal players capable of shooting from long range. While he hasn’t scored himself yet, the rebound from his long shot against Everton was put away by Nacho Monreal to tie the game at 1.
Xhaka is also tied for the club lead in assists (3) — already equaling his total from last season — and has provided some great passing going forward. Without his fantastic play against Leicester in the first match of the season, Arsenal would have lost that game.
His long passing continues to be some of the best in the Premier League and all of Europe. His amazing ball to Sead Kolasinac that was then put in the box for Ramsey to finish to give Arsenal the win over Swansea was sensational.
Despite his growth in the attack for Arsenal, though, he has struggled in defense and in keeping possession of the ball in build up play.
It’s quite frustrating to see Xhaka’s ability to make long range passes that few can, while he also misplays simple 10 foot passes like he did against Swansea. Xhaka has also had many bad giveaways in midfield this season while under pressure, and some of those have led to goals for the opposition.
According to Orbinho on Twitter, Arsenal have already matched the number of errors leading to an opposition goal at 4 that they had in 2016-17, with Xhaka being responsible for 2 of them.
He seems to be more successful this season with the difficult plays, but struggles with the simple aspects of midfield play.
There are many suggested reasons for this. Let’s take a look at a few.
Poor Decision Making
This is often the first point brought up whenever a player is not playing well. It’s true that what often separates merely average players from great players isn’t their skill, but it is the ability of the better players to make better decisions on the pitch compared to others.
Players who struggle with decision making will often attempt difficult passes when there are better, safer options. They will try to make plays that just aren’t there to make. They will dribble when they should pass and pass when they should dribble. They will venture out of position to make rash challenges.
This isn’t true for Xhaka. Xhaka does not struggle with his decision making. There have been few cases of an egregiously bad pass or Xhaka going in for a bad challenge this year. He has solid decision making skills on the pitch, but he does struggle with another related area.
Speed of the Game/Not Seeing the Field Well
Many soccer pundits love to go on and on about how the speed of the Premier League is so much faster than other leagues in Europe, and there are many players who just can’t handle it. It’s mostly hyperbole — and often used to try to (incorrectly) say that the Premier League is the toughest league in Europe — but it is true that the game is generally quicker than other leagues, including the Bundesliga.
Often Xhaka seems to be a second or two off the pace and will often hold the ball for just a bit too long, allowing pressure to come onto him rather than make a quick pass out of pressure.
With his back to challengers he sometimes appears unaware of approaching players closing onto him like with the turnover he committed that Wayne Rooney was able to put away for a goal. Instead of either getting rid of the ball or trying to shield it from Idrissa Gueye, he tried to take a touch not appearing to ever see that Gueye was right behind him.
Xhaka has struggled throughout the season with high presses in the defensive third. He often doesn’t play the ball out quick enough and this leads to turnovers and misplaced passes. Whether this is because of the faster pace of play in the EPL and not being able to adjust is tough to say, but it may be playing a part. The good news is if it’s just a matter of adjustment, this should improve; the bad news is that it arguably should be improving more than it is.
Lack of Focus
Several times during the Swansea game, Xhaka attempted to make a routine pass that he either misplaced or didn’t hit with enough pace. Sometimes even both of those things occurred at once. They were lazily played passes. Xhaka wasn’t under any pressure, and they weren’t particularly difficult passes. He simply didn’t execute them well.
This has happened with Xhaka several times this season. While able to make some great touch passes going forward, he can struggle with the simplest of passes. This could indicate a lack of focus on Xhaka’s part. One cannot step into his head and know what he is thinking when these plays happen, but it’s difficult to explain how he can play the amazing pass to Kolasinac in the same game where he misplays passes that youth team players can make with no problem without pointing to a lack of concentration on those simple, routine passes.
On the other hand...
Maybe this is just who he is
It could quite simply be the case that Granit Xhaka is who he is. He is a player who is a phenomenal passer when given time. He is someone who can play long balls better than about anyone. He can contribute in the attack with his long shots and playmaking.
But he struggles playing the ball while under pressure. He isn’t a good dribbler and doesn’t have the best pace. Teams have caught onto that and are starting to try to put Xhaka under as much pressure as they can and running players at him whenever he has the ball and try to isolate him away from teammates.
This isn’t to say that he can’t play better. We have seen him play much more effectively. However, we can’t expect him to fix the faults in his game just like that.
Arsenal and Xhaka need to find a counter to how teams are attacking Xhaka. It could be asking for more focus, or him adjusting to playing a quicker pace, or giving him more support.
It should probably be a combination of all those things. Granit Xhaka is a talented player and has done a lot for Arsenal this season. As a regular starter, he does need to cut down on his mistakes, though. Overall, Xhaka is a better player than he has shown so far in this young season and if he can cut down on the simple mistakes, he and Arsenal could be in for another good run of form.