With the Arsenal fraternity still basking in the exhilarating football played by their team on Saturday, there are so many aspects to dissect. However, I have chosen a subject that is still – even now – dividing the fanbase: The Renaissance of Granit Xhaka.
I try not to have favourites in the squad, but it would be fair to say, that if I did, the Swiss has seldom been amongst them since his arrival. That said my issues were never with his ability, but more the attributes for the position he was asked to play. No one can ever question his passing range and vision but being less then quick when frequently asked to play as the deeper midfielder, particularly when a player is prone to a rash challenge was always liable to cause issues.
It was the vocal criticism of Xhaka whist Club Captain, by the fans, when being asked to play as a DM, when Torreira was in the team, (an odd decision by then manager, Unai Emery,) that led to the infamous incident against Crystal Palace. It seemed extremely unlikely that when he stormed off the pitch discarding the arm band in a fit of pique, there was a long-term future for the Swiss in North London. Despite playing his way back into the side under new boss Arteta, when the player seemed to try and force a move to Roma in the summer of 2021, again, a rosy future at Arsenal did not seem possible.
Yet here we are just over a year later, and the same Granit Xhaka, has not left, indeed extended his contract and has just been named one of two Vice-Captains by Mikel Arteta. Even then, our fanbase is arguing about whether the club should replace him with Leicester’s Youri Tielemans. Barring the awful red card away at Man City, Xhaka maintained his discipline far better in 21/22 but the real reason for his change of fortune and form, in my view, has been the new role the Swiss skipper has been given in the new-shaped Arsenal.
Playing Partey as a sole 6, in an altered, and flexible 4123 (433) and moving Xhaka to a more advanced left-sided 8 role has – in short – played to his strengths, whilst leaving his weaknesses less likely to be exposed. He is more involved in the team’s attacking play, using his eye for an incisive pass and less worried about making advanced runs, witness the saved header and goal against Leicester.
Some fans will argue that Arsenal can source a better, younger left 8, more suited to the age profile of Arteta’s new team and it would be hard to argue with that view. But the team has to balance that longer term plan, which will see the team evolve together, with a sprinkling of older, experienced heads and Granit Xhaka is the club’s senior statesman. This is obviously why the manager has, after a three-year break given his trusted player official responsibility once more.
That said I believe Xhaka’s continued presence in the team is about far more than his seniority and everything about his reading of the game and his willingness to adapt and sacrifice himself for the team balance. You only have to watch the way Zinchenko moved into midfield as soon as the ball was played out of our defence, to know that the Swiss is trusted by his manager to drop back and cover without instruction. Indeed, the relationship on the pitch between the Ukrainian and the Swiss skipper belied the fact it is only 2 real matches old. Like his manager, later in his career, when playing for Arsenal, Xhaka just seems to know when he needs to fill in for a colleague who has advanced past him in a given attack.
It may be that Lokonga, or Vieira will compete with our senior midfielder for the left 8 role but in my view, Granit Xkaha will not be relinquishing his first-choice role anytime soon. He is trusted by his manager, valued by his teammates and most importantly has the football brain for the flexible, fluid style Arteta wished to play. Vitally also, his new advanced role, even though he will often be covering on the left will not leave his lack of mobility and occasional moments of rashness exposed.
It really seems that the renaissance of Granit Xhaka is complete, and – from one who whilst we played 343 or 4231, could certainly not see it as a likely scenario – I take my hat off to him.
This is the full, unedited version of my Sun Football Fan’s View column from yesterday.
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.