Last Wednesday night, as the clock hit 70 minutes, Arsenal had a break. Granit Xhaka had the ball, and had Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli in front of him. An accurate pass, and Arsenal could be in on goal. Xhaka overhit the pass for a goal kick, and two minutes later, Manchester City scored. Minutes later, Xhaka had a chance at redemption, but was indecisive in the penalty box, and was tackled. City would score a third, and Arsenal would fall to second place in the Premier League.
It is too soon to know if Wednesday’s loss is fatal for Arsenal’s chances of winning the Premier League, not least because Arsenal followed Wednesday with the win against Aston Villa while Manchester City dropped points against Nottingham Forest. Furthermore, Xhaka is not solely responsible for Arsenal, and helped create Arsenal’s goal, with a clever dinked pass for Nketiah, who won the penalty after Ederson clattered into him. But, as Arsenal struggled to create in the second half, with Ødegaard increasingly man marked out of the game, it is not hard to wonder if Arsenal are hitting a limit of success with Xhaka in the left 8 position.
It is a position that Xhaka has made his own, and he responded to the challenge Mikel Arteta set at the end of last season — to make it his own and affect the game in the final third, or he would get someone else, as he told Jamie Carragher. Xhaka played really well, and was a central part of the first half of Arsenal’s season. Yet, there are perhaps signs that Arteta is beginning to think about a change: in three straight games, Xhaka has been replaced by Fabio Vieira as Arsenal have gone looking for a goal.
On one hand, Xhaka is suffering from the same problem that the rest of Arsenal’s left hand side is from: the lack of Gabriel Jesus. Jesus’ off the ball runs and one-twos with Martinelli not only enabled Martinelli to thrive: it created space for Xhaka to dart into. Xhaka is never going to beat anyone with his dribbling; it’ll be his movement and passing. But as teams have clogged the middle against Arsenal, and sat deeper, the thing that happened with much more frequency in the autumn, Xhaka popping up with a perfectly timed late run, seemingly undetected, hasn’t happened. No longer can he ghost in to the box because he’s Granit Xhaka; teams have worked it out.
To illustrate that, let’s look at where Xhaka received possession in two matches against Brentford: the 3-0 win in the autumn, where he set up Gabriel Jesus’ goal, and the 1-1 draw earlier this month, where he, and Arsenal, were stymied.
There are two differences: Xhaka received fewer passes in February (probably in art because he was taken off) and he stuck more to the left hand side than in September, where he moved more across the pitch. That in part may have to do with two key changes from the team in September, beyond Gabriel Jesus, with Kieran Tierney and Fabio Vieira starting in September, with Zinchenko and Ødegaard missing. Yet, there isn’t a huge difference. Nor is there with Xhaka’s output on the ball:
The biggest difference is Xhaka has less verticality than he had in September, which gets at why Arsenal are beginning the see some of Xhaka’s limits in the #8 role. This is in part because of Jesus’ absence, and the knock-on effects that has had on the left hand side: the automatisms aren’t there with Eddie Nketiah, nor with Leandro Trossard, when he starts—and Trossard, though he’s been used to hold the width like Martinelli, likes operating in the areas that Xhaka has been operating in. There’s also Xhaka himself: he played at the World Cup, and the lightness that was present at the beginning of the season is there less, and the ball is being moved less swiftly now.
One interesting thing that Fabio Vieira has done as a substitute was make supporting wide runs, allowing Gabriel Martinelli to come more inside, where he might have more of an impact in the final third. There’s also the option of playing Trossard in these areas, or Emile Smith Rowe. Granit Xhaka has done extremely well, and his role in Arsenal’s title challenge shouldn’t go unrecognized; nor should his role in the dressing room and on the pitch. But his adjustment role may need some adjustment, because the Premier League has adapted to Arsenal’s style of play. Thus, for the Gunners to get ahead of the league again, some changes may have to happen, and Arteta’s substitution pattern is hinting that he is leaning towards making one in central midfield.