Gidday fellas! Round 2 for me on Gunners Town with a piece on Granit Xhaka after an absolute belter of a match for the Arsenal against City at the Emirates. If you were at the game, cheers to you. What a cracker of an atmosphere. The fans nailed the support for our young lads in red and white, and boy did they rise to the occasion. I loved the way we not only held our own against possibly the best side in Europe but also took the game to them, penned them back and pounded on the door repeatedly across the 90 mins. Even when we went a goal down.
Enough about the City match however, as today I’ve got a very unique piece in store. If you do want to read more about the performance against Manchester City however head over to Mike McDonald’s blog on Gunners Town here.
September 21st 2021 we learnt how important Granit Xhaka is to Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal when he was pushed straight back into the starting line up in the North London Derby after being out for 3 matches suspended and suffering from Covid.
December 7th 2021 we really learnt how much he is relied upon when after 2 months out with a high grade MCL knee injury he was again put in the starting line up in his first competitive minutes post injury. He is one of Mikel Arteta’s key men.
Whilst Granit Xhaka has stayed a key senior figure throughout his Arsenal career, his role and position within the side has changed, particularly over the past year. In fact his role has changed so much that he is playing in a completely different but far more effective manner than he has ever done. All this, whilst still being able to show his character, rally the troops and give his absolute all and passion.
Let’s caveat this piece by recognising that there are some flaws to Xhaka’s game, however not crucial for us to delve into today.
Before anyone starts the drama – the penalty Xhaka gave away against Man City was nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense. Bernado Silva was halfway to the ground diving before Xhaka grasped his shirt. It looks worse on replay because those instances always do. I do understand the decision, because these are given, however I just as easily think it could’ve gone the other way.
Granit has received a lot of press for how he gets treated poorly by refs on reputation. I completely agree with that, but I don’t think this was a call based on Xhaka’s personality on the pitch. He is demonised by refs for aggressive challenges not shirt pulling in the box.
Let’s talk about this positional development over the course of the last season or so though. Arteta really has moulded Xhaka’s game hugely to suit his strengths and to push the team’s development on in leaps and bounds.
The main change is the subtle move to a 433 shape with the ball and then back into the 4411/442/4231 (call it what you will) formation without it.
Xhaka is now playing in the LCM role of the 433 with Partey as the sole deep lying midfielder and Odegaard taking up the RCM slot (albeit slightly further advanced particularly when venturing into the final 3rd). There are many facets in which this has changed Xhaka’s ability to move the ball and many ways in which this has progressed the team.
Firstly Xhaka is receiving the ball higher up the pitch at this stage of the season compared to earlier on. If we think back to the start of the season or last season we could often see Granit Xhaka picking the ball up in a deep left back position vacated by the bombing Kieran Tierney. Xhaka said it himself he felt more confident receiving the ball deep as he had more time on the ball. However fast forward to present day and Granit is now receiving in a much more advanced position than Thomas Partey, in that left central midfield slot. If we look at the numbers we can see how well this is happening. Last season Granit received 22 passes per 90 mins in the defensive 3rd. This has reduced to just 13 per 90 mins this season.
The positive for Arsenal in this sense is that Xhaka and the side are moving the ball faster and progressing more easily. Granit is now closer to the goal when he receives the ball and thus able to affect the attacking side of things with his progressive passing more easily. We see this in the improvement of his shot creating actions per 90 mins of 2.5 this season; up from 1.43 per 90 last season.
We are not just seeing an improvement in shot creating actions (the 2 passes before a shot) this season but also in key passes per game. This directly translates to the pass that leads to a shot. Due to the higher starting position plus his unique ability to play progressive vertical forward and switch passes, Xhaka is finding our wingers higher up the pitch than previous. When passing out to Saka on the right, Saka is receiving the ball on the edge of the penalty box enabling him to cut inside and shoot quickly before opposition players are able to double up and reduce his space. This is a key read as Saka’s ability to shoot and finish from the edge of the box is taking a massive increase in productivity this season.
Xhaka is also finding his LW (Martinelli or ESR) in higher positions which again is leading to more quality shots. Due to Xhaka being in a higher space his opposing CM is pressing up to defend against Xhaka leaving no one to double team the LW and prevent the cut inside or outside to bring a shot. Higher quality chances with less defenders in the box invariably lead to more goals.
Going back to the stats – Xhaka’s key passes per 90 mins have risen from 0.64 last season to 0.87 this season. Expect that number to keep rising as he continues to play in the advanced position.
As most players do Granit Xhaka does turn the ball over on occasion. This is frequently exposed on twitter and in the media as a negative trait. Let’s be honest though – ultimately all players make mistakes. The reason Xhaka gets slaughtered is because of the time and place of these mistakes and the controversy that surrounds him.
The difference for Xhaka this season is that due to being positioned in more advanced areas his mistakes are leading to less opportunities for the opposition. Not only are the turnovers happening further away from our goal but we have more players behind the ball when this does happen creating a more difficult counter attack for the opposition.
Looking at the stats Xhaka we can see some of the above in numerics. Granit is dispossessed 0.6 x per 90 mins; whilst unsuccessfully controls the ball leading to a turnover 0.8 x per 90 mins. Compare this to Rodri of Man City who sits at 0.5 and 0.4 x per 90 mins respectively. This shows Xhaka’s slightly increased tendency to turnover possession of the football. However what is really remarkable is that this season Xhaka has had not made a single error leading to an opposition shot on goal. He is using the ball in areas that suit him far more stylistically.
As discussed above we can see how Granit’s higher starting position with the ball is enabling us to be far greater offensively, but it also provides a better platform to launch into our high press. It is no coincidence that our high press has particularly improved and been more consistent throughout a full 90 mins since Xhaka has returned from injury.
Being higher up the pitch it means that in transition he can push forward and provide support to the attackers pressurising the opposition defence. Xhaka has been key to this with 3.7 pressures to the ball in the final 3rd per 90 mins. Compare this to last season and Xhaka is up from 2.75 x per 90 mins. Compare this to Sambi Lokonga (with 2.09 pressures per 90 mins in the final 3rd) who took Granit’s position whilst out of the team and we can see that Arsenal are now getting more pressure and defensive actions higher up the pitch.
In the video below we can see a prime example of Xhaka’s progression in his pressing from the match against Man City. He is able to follow the high press and push up onto Cancelo who has tucked inside, enabling Thomas Partey to continue the press and ultimately win the ball back high up the pitch.
— MComps304 (@MComps304) January 2, 2022
Plenty to like then with Granit Xhaka’s development this season. He will always have his critics but there is plenty of upside to his game that will be crucial for our chances of making the top four this season.
I think Arteta will certainly look to replace Xhaka in the next season or two for someone younger with more mobility. But let’s applaud the tactical switch which brings the best out of the player and could quite possibly be the structural and technical difference in allowing our young attacking quartet to thrive.
Martinellli, Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Odegaard will be the reason we score the goals that could propel us back into the Champions League for next season. But I’ll be damned if Xhaka’s influence doesn’t set the base to allow these ones to give us one hell of an attacking season to come.
I’m all aboard this train. We are on the way to the top four.
The handbrake is firmly down, and I’m loving it.
Europe is in our sights.
It’s Arsenal all the way.
Kia Kaha team. Cheers for reading my second post for Gunners Town. If you enjoyed please drop me a comment or like. If you fancy reading my previous post on William Saliba check here. Or give me a follow on twitter @KiwiGoonerHaz and we can get right into the debate.
The voice of a dedicated Arsenal fan living all the way across the world in New Zealand… 3am wake ups to watch the beautiful game; coffee and a pen; heart break and euphoria; a lad with a dream of seeing the famous red and white in the flesh and back where they belong…
Football runs in the blood. Playing will always be the passion; whilst now working as a sports physiotherapist enables me to have constant access and inside insight into the goings on at club level.