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Ode to Granit Xhaka – the glue that keeps getting stickier

Last week I was fortunate enough to fly out to Berlin, Germany with tickets to Switzerland vs Italy at Euro 2024. Right now all the Arsenal talk is all about Riccardo Calafiori, and it would have been nice for me to write a piece about him and what I saw from him in that game. Unfortunately, he was suspended. So instead I am here to praise one of the best midfielders in the world, former Arsenal man and Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka. 

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Credit: Arsenal.com

Granit has crafted an incredible couple of years. Leverkusen lost one game in all competitions last season, similarly Switzerland have only lost one game since their 2022 World Cup exit. Before that he was a key part of the Arsenal side who went on a surprise title charge in 22/23. There is absolutely no coincidence that Xhaka is at the heart of all of these sides.

When looking at a player’s quality people often talk about “technical level”. What is technique? For me, part of technique is actions looking exactly as they should if they were designed by the football gods. This is how I would describe Granit Xhaka’s passing. It’s perfect. Every pass is played at the right time, at the right pace, to the right place, to the receiver’s strong foot, perfectly cutting the grass with no bobbles. He knows when to progress the ball and play forward, and knows when to play safe and retain possession. He can play short first-time passes making triangles wherever he goes, he can clip the ball down the channel and he can go for the big diag. There is such a crispness in that left foot. I struggle to remember him playing passes on his right foot, but this is his real super power. He very rarely needs to use it. Granit always knows where the ball is going before it arrives and he is always perfectly positioned to send the ball where it needs to go. If you let him, he will dominate the match. Against Italy the Swiss captain had 101 touches and played over 90 passes, everything went through him and nobody on the Italy team could get near him. 

One of Granit Xhaka’s well known weaknesses is his running speed and ball carrying. Yet, I am always impressed by his ball carrying. That is because nobody knows his limits better himself. Given the opportunity, Granit carries the ball forward, and every time knows exactly how far he is able to go before releasing it as opponents close in. Similarly, when running back towards his own goal or when isolated 1v1, he always knows when he can win the ball and knows when to make a foul. When playing in a bad team, like we saw when Arsenal were at their worst, his competitiveness can take his combativeness over the edge, but in a highly structured outfit his physicality is nothing but a massive plus. In a weaker team, Granit Xhaka can end up throwing himself around in a petulant manner due to his frustration with losing. In a strong team, he gets stuck in with a determination to win the ball back with an arrogance of knowing he is better than his opponents, meaning he knows he doesn’t need to go over the edge and can stay within the boundaries of the law. 

A lot of his strengths lie in his decision making. Last season Arsenal had arguably the best right hand side in world football, whilst the left side never clicked in the same way. The closest thing Arsenal have had in the past 2 seasons to an equally effective left hand side to the right was the triangle of Xhaka, Zinchenko and Martinelli. Xhaka’s decision making and positioning, deciding where to be would be key to this. He could sit at the base and feed balls into the last line, he could crash the box and run through the inside channel, or he could overlap and put in left-footed crosses such as his assist for Eddie Nketiah against Manchester United. His football IQ is up there with the best.

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Credit: Arsenal.com

In 22/23, Martin Ødegaard was Arsenal captain. But from the stands, in my eyes Granit was always the de facto leader on and off the pitch of Arteta’s team. People would say whilst not being the loudest Martin would lead by example. Granit would lead by example, and be the talker. In a young side, Xhaka was the grown up. He always felt like the team’s older brother who would hold standards high and have everyone’s back. For Leverkusen, he has a similar role. Goalkeeper Lucas Hradecky is the captain on the team sheet, but on the outfield, Granit continues to be the natural leader that he is. However, when he puts on a Switzerland shirt, he also gets to put on the captain’s armband. Watching him in the Olympiastadion, you would see him constantly barking orders, pointing to his teammates telling them exactly where to stand to get ready to receive the ball two passes beforehand, and his teammates are happy to follow his instructions knowing that their skipper sees the game better than anyone else on the pitch. 

England will come up against Switzerland in the quarterfinals of the Euros this weekend, and if they are to stand any chance of beating this well-oiled Swiss machine, the key is to stop Granit Xhaka. How do you do that? Take away his passing options. As I said earlier, Granit knows where the ball is going before it arrives, if you take away his options so he has to decide on the fly this is where you can pick his pocket. Arsenal replaced Xhaka with Declan Rice, who doesn’t alway have as clear a picture in his head of where the ball is going to go. But what Declan has is the ability to use his immense physicality to drive through the middle of the park and beat his man to get out of trouble. The one match Bayer Leverkusen lost to Atalanta this year in the Europa League final, they went so aggressive with their man-to-man marking it seemed no player on the German side, including Granit could get the ball moving like he usually does. The problem for England is they have not shown anywhere near the level of organisation of a club side and have put out a very disjointed press throughout their games this tournament. If this continues and they let the Swiss deep-lying playmaker run the show, I can only see a Switzerland victory. 

If Switzerland were to beat England, one win against the Netherlands or Turkey stands in the way of a major international final for Granit Xhaka. He is the glue that holds all his teams together, and make no doubt about it, is one of the best midfielders in the world today. 

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I was there for his final game for Arsenal, and although there was a large “Farewell Granit” sign in the Ashburton Army, it never felt like he got to say a real goodbye to the fans. Luckily for us, Granit will be back at the Emirates for a pre-season game with Bayer Leverkusen on the 7th August and will hopefully get the reception he deserves. Beyond that, I personally very much hope to see Granit Xhaka back at Arsenal in the future, perhaps as a coach, or maybe on the touchline himself.

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