Arsenal: Granit Xhaka Unfairly Roped Into Heaping Criticism

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Granit Xhaka in the Arsenal changing room before the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on April 2, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Granit Xhaka in the Arsenal changing room before the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on April 2, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images) /

Arsenal were laughed out of Selhurst Park after succumbing to the fight of Crystal Palace, but if anyone can hold his head high, it is Granit Xhaka.

Arsenal’s humiliating loss against Crystal Palace left no room for a positive performance. Every single man on that pitch did not deliver. But it has to be added that some were moreso victims of the day than they were culprits themselves.

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For instance, Alexis wasn’t overwhelmingly terrible, he just didn’t have much help around him.

However, if there was one man who stood out on the day for doing his job and doing it well, it was Granit Xhaka.

The Pain in the Arsenal chat room was rampant with opinions after the match and far too many agreed that Xhaka was just as terrible as everyone else. That is why I am sitting here writing this article. Because Xhaka was absolutely not terrible. He was the only Gunner to actually follow through on his responsibilities.

Before we get into the numbers and the logic, it must first be said what his responsibilities are. And that isn’t exactly easy to do, because Arsene Wenger is incredibly unclear about what the Swiss is here to do. He was supposed to be added steel, then he was supposed to be a holding midfielder, then he was supposed to be a box to box.

It all depends on his partner and Xhaka has suffered trying to rotate between three different roles while still acclimating to the most competitive league in the footballing world.

Arsenal lost control incredibly quickly against Crystal Palace. They were lose with the ball, flippant with their passing and couldn’t create a meaningful chance to save their lives. But right in the middle of that was Granit Xhaka, delivering the best version of ‘control’ that one man can deliver given the circumstances.

Let me give you the numbers first.

Xhaka touched the ball more than anyone else on the pitch by along shot. Touches are cool, it shows you are making yourself available for your team mates to find you. But it’s what you do with those touches that is going to set you apart.

Xhaka created four chances on the day. The rest of the team created just five combined, including a huge goose egg from the “maestro” Mesut Ozil. Along with accounting for 44% of the chances, Xhaka also completed 10 of his 13 long balls.

One of the biggest upsides to having Xhaka in the side is his ability to drop lengthy passes on a dime. It is a tough skill to master because of the intelligence and vision it requires, but for all the growing that Xhaka still needs to do, he may well have already mastered the long ball.

Arsenal, Granit Xhaka
(Photo by Graham Wilson/Action Plus via Getty Images) /

He wasn’t loose with the ball either. He had one questionable moment in the box (that didn’t end up hurting us) but he only surrendered possession twice. That is hardly enough to berate a guy over.

Xhaka is getting the gross majority of his criticism because he isn’t the midfielder that people want. They want N’Golo Kante, who is going to fight for the ball, win it back, and turn play around.

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That isn’t Xhaka. And the longer people expect him to turn into that, the longer they rob themselves of appreciating what Xhaka actually is. He isn’t a ball-winner, and enforcer, a Patrick Vieira or anything like that. He is a passer that has above average strength.

He is Xabi Alonso, just in England. The big difference between the two is that everyone understands Alonso and what he is there to do. No one complains that he doesn’t win that many balls, or that he isn’t pacey.

Few understand what Xhaka is here to do because Wenger hasn’t made it clear, but don’t let that take away from the obvious reasons. He passes incredibly well. He is very intelligent and visionary over the ball.

And he can win back the occasional ball.

Xhaka is not the kind of guy who is going to impress with stats all that often, but if you put his stats up against N’Golo Kante, the “fix-all,” you will see a very similar line of numbers (seriously, do it. Here are Xhaka’s and here are Kante’s).

Wishing that we had gotten Kante instead is a perfectly acceptable argument because they are two completely different midfielders. But hating on Xhaka because he isn’t Kante is unfair. It’sno secret that Xhaka needs someone next to him, and yes Kante would be the perfect candidate, but consider what you miss out on if that switch was made.

You lose out on those stretching balls that keep the defense honest. You miss out on the commander in the center of the pitch, who distributes the ball and makes himself available (Kante is not a commander type).

In exchange, you gain the ability to win balls back and turn the play around.

If that is what you want to see, fair play. But even when Francis Coquelin was at his best in 2014/15, winning balls back with gusto, we still lacked that offensive push. It may just be a byproduct of Wenger’s annoying 4-2-3-1 system, but that was all I needed to see. Coquelin was our Kante at one point and it wasn’t enough.

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Xhaka has the ability to grow into the Xabi Alonso of the Premier League. He just needs some consistency around him and from his manager.