Remontada’s place in football vocabulary owes a lot to former Arsenal head coach Unai Emery. It was, after all, Emery’s bottling that led firstly to Barcelona’s 6-1 win over PSG becoming known as “La Remontada,” and, directly because of that game, remontada entered the French dictionary.
Yet, there is another Arsenal figure for whom remontada could be the defining word for, as Granit Xhaka has once again made himself a key player in Arsenal’s midfield. It doesn’t have to be said how often Xhaka’s time at Arsenal has looked up. But, under Mikel Arteta, Granit Xhaka remontada has been a feature: he came back into favour, after looking like he was going to leave last January, and this season, a senseless red card against Burnley looked like a further nail in the coffin of Xhaka’s Arsenal career. Xhaka, though, came back into the team against Chelsea, and hasn’t come out of the lineup since.
Of course, part of that has been that Arsenal have only had three midfielders available to them: Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, and Dani Ceballos. But in recent weeks, Thomas Partey has come back to full fitness, starting the last three league games—and Xhaka has started all of them. This itself is a new development. When Partey starred for Arsenal at Old Trafford, it was alongside Mohamed Elneny, whose energy and low risk passing seemed like a good match for Partey. Yet Elneny is now the player replacing Partey (with Ceballos unavailable). Indeed, Xhaka and Partey have created the shoots of a midfield partnership.
While Partey’s passing was loose on Saturday, Xhaka’s was secure: 96.6% successful, while leading Arsenal in switches and progressions. At times, Xhaka can slow attacks down because he is painfully one footed, and because he lacks the capability to turn. But against Manchester United, Xhaka played the ball far more quickly, allowing Arsenal to overcome the looser passing not only of Partey, but of Héctor Bellerín and David Luiz. What should be encouraging too is Xhaka made the second most number of passes under pressure—12—with many finding an Arsenal teammate. A player who can lose his cool when forced into action, Xhaka kept his head and kept possession.
Xhaka’s biggest issue as a midfield player is that he is ill equipped to defend large spaces. When Mikel Arteta first took over at Arsenal, he mitigated that by having Xhaka drop into a left centre back position, covering the space vacated by the attacking runs of Sead Kolsainac and Bukayo Saka from left back. Arteta’s overall role was to make the spaces for Arsenal smaller out of possession, especially in transition where Arsenal, and Xhaka in particular, were significantly vulnerable.
This theme continued during Phase Two of Arteta’s reign, Project Restart. Eventually, Xhaka and Dani Ceballos formed an effective partnership, but Arsenal were a very defensive team at that point. As Arteta tried opening Arsenal up, Xhaka ran into issues, culminating in his sending off against Burnley.
In Arsenal’s recent run of form, Arteta has again closed down the space that Arsenal have to defend. That, though, has been with Arsenal defending higher up the pitch, with the pressing against Southampton particularly impressive. This put Xhaka in positions higher up the pitch, and for once, his passing was incisive and decisive, assisting Nicolas Pépé, and creating a chance that Lacazette should’ve scored in the opening minute. This has been a rarity as of late: Xhaka’s passing, which used to go through the lines and be more incisive, has grown safer in recent seasons. He also benefits from having more Arsenal players between the lines, and the outlet from Xhaka to Tierney, for example, has been a promising route for Arsenal attacks as of late.
Xhaka’s best run of form in an Arsenal shirt came alongside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield. Broadly speaking, it was not too dissimilar to what Xhaka is doing now with Partey. The better physical player did more pressing and running, while Xhaka covered spaces in behind, and helped build possession. The thing that keeps Arsenal managers, from Wenger, to Emery, to Arteta, returning to Xhaka is that he is a player who can be relied upon to provide structure and solidity if there is a system in place. Xhaka is not a chaos player, but one who needs structure. As Arteta continues to build Arsenal’s structure, and lessen some of the chaos of November and December, Arsenal’s midfield is taking on more defined roles. Unlike Dani Ceballos, who inherently breaks midfield roles, and Mohamed Elneny, who plugs into various midfield roles at an acceptable level, it is Xhaka who is best placed to fill a role that better allows Thomas Partey to succeed. Arsenal will probably want to upgrade in the summer, but for now, it is once again time for Grant Xhaka remontada.