After four games, many Arsenal fans are ready to cast Granit Xhaka away, sick of repeated errors that have littered his first two and a bit seasons at the club. Unai Emery, though, is less sure, saying that, “Xhaka is very important for us.” That is why Xhaka starts, and will continue to start. Why, though, does Unai Emery think that Granit Xhaka is very important for the team?
The primary reason, one suspects, is because of Xhaka’s passing. This is, of course, educated guesses, and I could be completely wrong, and perhaps Emery really rates Xhaka’s defensive work. But given Xhaka’s defensive work is not the best aspect of his game, and his passing is very good, this feels like a good guess. But why is Xhaka’s passing so good? What does he do that no one else at Arsenal can replicate?
Xhaka sees himself as first and foremost an offensive player, albeit from a deep position: “I’d actually describe myself as a fake No10 – in other words, a No10 that plays further back.” Thus, from the back, Xhaka is looking to play creative, penetrative passes, switching the point of the attack and adding verticality to Arsenal’s passing game. Xhaka, then, is pivotal in Arsenal’s build-up play.
5 - The top players in terms of open play shot sequence involvement (involvement in the build up to an open play shot) this season in the Premier League:— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 15, 2018
271 – Kevin De Bruyne
247 – Christian Eriksen
235 – Mohamed Salah
228 – Eden Hazard
225 – Granit Xhaka
Of those five players involved the most in the build up to an open play shot, three, Hazard, Salah and Eriksen (so far this season), play in wide positions, De Bruyne is a number 10 playing as a number 8, and Xhaka is a number 6 who occasionally plays as a number 8. On one hand, you could argue that Xhaka racks up these numbers by a function of being there, and were Lucas Torreira starting, he might achieve the same numbers. That’s not necessarily wrong; Xhaka might be in that list because he’s started all of Arsenal’s games in the Premier League so far.
Yet there is another aspect to Xhaka’s game that adds importance, that makes it more apparent as to why he’s in this list. Xhaka’s passing progression value is at .06 per 90 (the scale here being goals); Torreira is at .08, and Guendouzi is at .02. Furthermore, Xhaka’s range of passing is greater than the other two, which is why Emery says Xhaka is very important for Arsenal. Against Chelsea, taking Xhaka off at halftime, and losing that range of passing is one reason for Arsenal playing on the back foot in the second half. That is exemplified by Xhaka successfully averaging 11.25 passes into the final third per 90 minutes; that is, passes that begin outside of the final third and end at the feet of an attacking player, such as Aaron Ramsey or Mesut Özil or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Xhaka, then, is Arsenal’s best player at transitioning the point of attack; better than Guendouzi, with his midfield competitors, Torreira and Guendouzi, who average 5.3 and 4.4 final third entry passes per 90 respectively (all numbers come from our very own Scott Willis).
This is important for how Emery wants Arsenal to play. With the fullbacks pushing forward, responsibility for building play falls more on the centre backs and deep midfielders, who have to have the ability to spread the ball wide, to the full backs, or vertically through the pitch, to the nominal wide players in the channels, or the striker and number 10. Indeed, in a team where the goalkeeper is becoming a key player of the ball, the fact that the team’s largest contributor to buildup would be the #6 is somewhat logical: the decisive passes are the ones that switch the point of attack, from passing in a defensive setting, to an offensive setting. It is that role that Xhaka fulfills, and that no one, yet, has come close to matching.
This does not mean that Xhaka cannot improve, and for someone who is a very talented player on the ball, he can be idiotic off it. Yet, some context deserves to be applied here. Like all the Arsenal players, Xhaka is adjusting to new demands. Some are tailored to his strengths; others, like the positions he’s being asked to take up in a defensive sense, are not, with Xhaka asked to press more, when he prefers to sit and read the game in front of him. Like Emery and all the Arsenal players, Xhaka needs time. That he had ups and downs under Arsène Wenger is almost irrelevant because these are new demands, new structures, and new asks. For the time being, Unai Emery thinks Granit Xhaka is important, and as long as Arsenal’s attack is based on playing the ball through the middle of the pitch, Granit Xhaka will remain crucial.