Debating about whether a player is “good” or not is something of a rite of passage for sports fans. In the age of advanced sports metrics, it has become a far more complicated affair. Players are not just “good” or “bad” - they are empirically, scientifically, quantifiably “good” or “bad.” It’s an understatement to say that Arsenal have had their fair share of players stuck in the middle of that debate, especially in the Emirates era - Mesut Ozil, Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott all readily come to mind. The list is extensive. Few players, however, can hold a candle to the Granit Xhaka.
In the face of seemingly persistent criticism, CIES Football Observatory, who currently provide some of the most intense data analysis in professional soccer, recently named the controversial midfielder as Arsenal’s best performing outfield player of 2021. Keeping him company among the Premier League’s elites are Thiago Alcantra, Harry Kane, an Jorginho, to name a few.
The top performing outfield player from every top 10 Premier League club in 2021, according to CIES Football Observatory ✨ pic.twitter.com/OGu3U2PZzN— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 29, 2021
My first thought when I saw this list was the memorable Sesame Street song “One of These Things” - as in one of these things (or players, in this case) doesn’t belong. Considering this is ranking performance since the new calendar year began, no one could be blamed for thinking that, surely, someone like rising starlets Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, or loanee Martin Odegaard would have had a larger impact on Arsenal’s recent success than Granit Xhaka. Maybe Alexandre Lacazette, who has rediscovered his scoring form as of late. But it is Xhaka, with a value rating of 80.9, that tops the team. If you are interested in the methodology, I’m the last person you want explaining it, but they lay it out here.
Amidst rumors that a return to Germany could be on the horizon, CIES’ accolades come as a bit of surprise to many. Xhaka’s style of play is the antithesis of the sexy, seamlessly flowing play the footballing world came to associate with Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. He is neither deft on the ball nor particularly swift. His defensive positioning can leave much to be desired at times. His first touch leaves much to be desired.
He does, however, hold up the ball well while facilitating the methodical build-out-of-the-back style that Mikel Arteta has leaned on since replacing Unai Emery last season. He can be painfully one-footed, but he can leather it like few others on the roster can from 30 yards. His passing, while safe at times, is consistent. And say what you will, but few players can weather a full season while starting nearly all matches the way Xhaka can.
This article is neither a defense of Granit Xhaka, nor is it designed to be an indictment of the Swiss midfielder. The reality is this - Xhaka is both good and bad, depending on your criteria, and for many, very little can be said to sway opinions about the controversial midfielder. He might rarely pass the eye test, but the underlying stats parcel out a consistent player who has been a stalwart in the midfield for Wenger, Emery, and now Arteta.
We have heard the arguments from both sides ad nauseam. The ebb and flow of Xhaka’s career has seen highs and lows that justify both sides of the argument. For every solid outing, a head-scratching display. For every bone-headed dust-up, an inevitable redemption arc. In his mercurial way, he perfectly encapsulates the last five years of Arsenal - occasionally great, occasionally infuriating, consistently divisive.
Xhaka has rarely been the player we all wanted him to be, but that has not stopped him from being Arsenal’s most consistent performer for much of the last five seasons - for better or for worse. He will never top a fan favorite list or win a player of the year award, but in this moment, his recognition is deserved.