A deeper look at a divisive Granit Xhaka display as Arsenal draw 0-0 with Crystal Palace.
Granit Xhaka is a man who regularly sparks debate in the Arsenal fanbase. Sometimes for the right reasons, often for the wrong ones. Every Arsenal fan can recognise Xhaka’s superb passing range and respected leadership skills, but his defensive work is what is usually lamented. His lack of mobility never fails to frustrate the Arsenal faithful.
In my player ratings following the Palace match, I commented on Xhaka’s performance being ‘juxtaposing.’ This is certainly a word that can easily be ascribed to the 28-year-old’s overall ability. However, yesterday it was applicable to him in a very un-Xhaka-like fashion.
Against the Eagles, off the ball, Xhaka was uncharacteristically superb: Xhaka won back possession 11 times, more than any other player on the pitch (Orbinho). So far this season, the Swiss has won an average of 0.99 tackles/90 and made 0.74 interceptions/90, a clear improvement in this regard yesterday.
But it wasn’t just that he was making tackles which impressed. It was his eagerness to atone for his own errors, as depicted by a monumental 13 ball recoveries from the Switzerland captain. A desire to make amends for their own wrongdoings isn’t a quality that can be ascribed to many Arsenal players.
So many have hidden behind their mistakes in recent years. Players have attempted to blame others knowing full well they’re culpable. An notable incident in the match against Crystal Palace at home two years ago involving Shkodran Mustafi springs to mind. Xhaka didn’t do that yesterday. He delivered a responsible performance.
However, the reason he needed to make up for his errors was due to his lax display on the ball. We all know Xhaka is capable of a lazy performance, but his passing was unusually poor yesterday. Despite completing 7/8 long balls last night, he lost the ball 16 times overall, thus exemplifying that his simple passes weren’t at the required level.
Passing accuracy is something we tend to take for granted from Xhaka. Whilst he has shortcomings in other aspects of his game, Xhaka’s ability to do the basics on the ball is rarely called into question. He’ll know he wasn’t good enough in this respect on Thursday night.
It’s easier said than done, but the challenge for Xhaka against Newcastle on Monday and beyond will be to combine his new-found defensive nous with his undoubted passing ability. If he can do that, Mikel Arteta could be on to a money-maker with a partnership of him and Thomas Partey.
Despite an overall poor performance yesterday, there’s reason for optimism within the Arsenal fanbase. With Partey and an on-form Xhaka feeding the ball forward to the likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, something could yet be made of what has been an underwhelming campaign for Arsenal.