Granit Xhaka thriving for Arsenal after reinvention as an attacking midfielder under manager Mikel Arteta
Granit Xhaka was one of the last players to head back towards the tunnel at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium, lingering a little longer than most in front of the travelling fans and holding up his hands in gratitude as they belted out his name.
Such a reception was inconceivable not so long ago but, three years on from storming off to a chorus of boos at the Emirates Stadium and subsequently losing the captaincy,
the scenes in west London last Sunday underlined a remarkable change in fortunes.
It has been a long road to this point. As recently as February, when Arsenal last faced Brentford, Xhaka could be seen rejecting the captain’s armband after Alexandre Lacazette’s late substitution. “I was not ready for that,” he explained later.
This time, though, in the absence of the injured Martin Odegaard, he wore it from the start as Arsenal secured a 3-0 victory which took them back to the top of the Premier League.
It was, he said afterwards, a “very special and emotional” day for him.
The armband added to the symbolism of the occasion but his redemption is above all down to performances. Against Brentford, Xhaka was excellent, much as he has been all season, and much as he was for a considerable chunk of the last one too.
His improvement owes a lot to how Mikel Arteta, the man who convinced Xhaka to stay at the Emirates Stadium in 2020, has reconfigured his midfield.
Xhaka has been viewed as a deep-lying midfielder throughout his time in the Premier League but that role is now left to Thomas Partey, with Arsenal’s full-backs, usually Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White, often tucking inside to provide additional support.
Xhaka has in turn been freed up to move further forward, operating as Arsenal’s left-sided No 8, with Odegaard or, against Brentford, Fabio Vieira, performing a similar role on the opposite side.
“Sometimes, you have to take players out of their comfort zone and open a different door to explore how the team will react to it, and what the opposition will do,” explained Arteta when he first made the change during the second half of last season.
Xhaka looked uncomfortable in the new position at times initially. A costly injury to Partey then required him to drop back in the final few games of the campaign. By then, though, it had already become clear he relished having more licence to attack.
Now, he is flourishing.
With one goal and three assists, the last of which came in the form of his superb diagonal cross for Gabriel Jesus last Sunday, lifted into the Brentford box from precisely the area in which he is now instructed to operate, Xhaka has already had a direct hand in more goals than in any of the previous three seasons.
Arsenal are suddenly playing to his strengths.
Xhaka is less involved in Arsenal’s build-up, his numbers for passes dropping by nearly 15 per cent from last season, but he is affecting games far more in the final third, creating more chances and having over twice as many touches in the opposition box.
Xhaka has always possessed outstanding vision and passing ability and those qualities are now helping to unlock opposition defences. In addition to maximising his best qualities, the change of position is helping to conceal his weaknesses.
Those weaknesses have long frustrated Arsenal fans.
Since his arrival in the Premier League in 2016, Xhaka has made more errors leading to goals (eight) than any other outfield player. He also ranks top for red cards (four) and bookings (54). Only two players, Wilfred Ndidi and Oriol Romeu, have conceded more fouls (267).
Xhaka’s temperament has let him down at times but his position on the pitch was, until recently, another big factor behind the reoccurring issues that so infuriated the club’s supporters.
Xhaka, lacking the acceleration or tackling ability of a player like Partey – Arsene Wenger, the manager who signed him, urged him on one occasion to avoid tackling altogether – was often left exposed at the base of midfield and vulnerable to opposition runners.
The issue for Wenger, and indeed for those who went on to follow him in the dugout, was that Arsenal’s imbalanced squad lacked other options to play in front of the defence, where, in possession, if not out of it, Xhaka’s influence was key.
Lately, though, with Partey usually available for selection, Xhaka has been able to spend the bulk of his time in the opposition’s half rather than his own. There is considerably less onus on him to provide defensive security and it is evident in the statistics.
Xhaka is averaging fewer tackles and, as a result, fewer fouls than at any other point in his Arsenal career. “I have a lot more freedom from the coach, from my team-mates,” he said last month.
That is not to say he is no longer contributing defensively. Xhaka may not be the quickest over short distances but his stamina and work-rate are second to none. This season, in fact, he has covered more ground (77.4km) than any other Arsenal player.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that he is thriving as a box-to-box midfielder given that is how Wenger described him when he arrived at the Emirates Stadium. But even with that in mind, his attacking influence this season has exceeded expectations.
Xhaka has been instrumental in bringing the best out of Jesus, whose header from the Swiss international’s cross against Brentford took him to four goals in his first seven starts.
“I’m so happy to play with him,” said Jesus when interviewed by Sky Sports alongside Xhaka after that game. “He is an intelligent and quality player and all the time he is trying to find me.”
Indeed, his assist was not the only example. In total, Xhaka found Jesus with 11 passes against Brentford, including a flicked through-ball from which he almost scored a second, while the Brazilian found him on eight occasions, again, more than he did any other player.
The sample size is still relatively small but the understanding between the two players has been building throughout the season.
In fact, Xhaka has exchanged more passes with Jesus than anyone else at an average of 9.4 per 90 minutes. It bears stark contrast to his average of 6.5 per 90 minutes with Lacazette last season.
Xhaka’s role has changed but some things remain constant. His professionalism and commitment, while often overlooked by fans, have always commanded the respect of his peers – and coaches.
“He has had a fantastic attitude since he arrived here,” said Wenger. “He has a big character and he is very important,” added Unai Emery. “It’s his personality and the way he approaches his profession that makes him a special player,” said Arteta.
Now, though, he is offering plenty more besides.
His reception from the away end at Brentford capped a story of redemption but the bigger changes are to be found on the pitch, where the reinvented Xhaka can be seen charging forward and carving open opposition defences. Expect to hear his name sung again if he continues in the same vein against Tottenham.
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