Granit is a TEAM guy, not THE guy, and that’s OK! ”The sensitive subject of rotating Xhaka”

There is no player in the Arsenal team that has divided opinion during the years more than Xhaka. He joined us in 2016 and there was confusion about what type of player he really was. He took the captain’s armband in 2019 and got stripped of it in the space of a few months. And in 2022/23 you can say that he finally has found his perfect position, both on the pitch and off it (with the fans) as he has had a new lease of life playing his best football in the red and white. What a journey!

Granit Xhaka transformation

He played as a defensive midfielder for several years gaining a somewhat unfair reputation as a hothead and a defensive liability. But did he really play the position that was perfectly suited for him? Arsene said in 2016 he was a box to box player, we know now that he was right. This season he has played the L8 role to an elite level, he has been one of the best midfielders in the league and his shortcomings have not been seen up to this point playing higher up.

But just because he has had a personal revolution this season doesn’t mean he is or should be THE guy. In fact his best football comes from playing as a TEAM guy. And his team mentality has looked best when playing with our first 11 with Jesus up front. When Jesus was in the team it wasn’t unusual to see him dropping deep doing some playmaking for Martinelli and Xhaka, he was also often overlapping Martinelli, making room for Xhaka to run into the box. Granit’s forceful nature fitted that role to a tee.

Jesus vs Nketiah heat map

Jesus vs Nketiah heat map

But with Jesus out injured and Nketiah up front instead, our play has changed somewhat. Now there’s no space for Xhaka to run into the box, Nketiah is always in a central spot waiting for opportunities. And with Zinchenko taking all the responsibility in build-up on the left side, what the team needs of Xhaka has also changed. Now the team needs Xhaka to connect play more in the left halfspace higher up, making up for the missing playmaking ability of Jesus, but also to overlap Martinelli so he isn’t alone out there. And even if Xhaka does that from time to time, mostly in settled play around the opposition box, he doesn’t do these things often enough, fast enough or to a high enough level.

It feels like Xhaka has risen like a phoenix and now you cant say anything bad about him without getting heat for it. Make no mistake about it, saying Xhaka is a great role player in our team and not one of our most important players isn’t slating him, it’s in fact only helping him. To me there’re only 6 pivotal players in our team that we need on the pitch to play our optimal game. That’s Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko, Partey, Odegaard and Saka. Every other position we can rotate a bit. We all thought Jesus was the 7th but fair play to Eddie.

Although Nketiah has been remarkable while Jesus has been out we are deeply missing something on that left side of the pitch, and Xhaka for me isn’t the one who makes up for what we are missing. It’s my opinion that we need a more mobile and technical L8 that plays more with Martinelli on the left, like Odegaard does with Saka on the right. It’s fine thinking Martinelli is a great 1v1 attacker, but when he is completely alone and is double teamed he needs someone to play with, to exchange positions with, or else the team will suffer for it.

It was a normal sight seeing Martinelli, Saka, Jesus and Odegaard be on a similar amount of touches per game pre-WC. Now it’s normal to see Saka with considerably higher amounts than Martinelli while Nketiah is continiously low in touches.

We all need to get comfortable with rotation if we are gonna enter a world with 60-70 games a season. Xhaka is north of his 30th birthday too, so to play him when he suits the team and play someone else when he doesn’t, seems to me like the best way to use Xhaka now and in the future.

We have Vieira who needs minutes, we also have Trossard that looks very promising in those pockets. And not to mention ESR that we are waiting eagerly for. There’s plenty of options and playing Xhaka in every possible minute doesn’t seem like the best way to utilise the squad and optimize our play from game to game.


Either it’s this, or someone will have to have a serious tactical talk with Nketiah about positional play.

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One Response to Granit is a TEAM guy, not THE guy, and that’s OK! ”The sensitive subject of rotating Xhaka”

  1. Liam February 7, 2023 at 9:07 am #

    As much as I agree longer term this needs to be reviewed, realistically for the next 2/3 games Xhaka is needed. Brentford are naturally a more physical team and Vieira still needs to bulk up. If ESR was match fit I think he has enough about him to cope with that game but he is unfortunately out again.

    The last line of this is interesting, Nketiah can come deep, he’s done it really well against the likes of West Ham and Chelsea this season and last season. On Saturday our best chance came from Eddie coming in from the left to square it to Odeguard. It’s more subtle with Jesus and Martinelli rotating, but why not have it that Nketiah and Martinelli switch. Similar to how wingers switch sides, those two switch positions for a period. As both would likely drift central this would allow Xhaka space on the left and he can play balls in against likely just one defender as teams won’t double up on him.

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