Has there been a more polarising player in Arsenal’s modern history than Granit Xhaka?
The Swiss international has split the fanbase ever since he joined the club from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016. While Xhaka is, quite obviously, a good footballer who’s emerged as an invaluable leader at the Emirates, his tendency to produce moments of utter stupidity have often undermined his career in north London.
I’m still not over that ‘tackle’ on Diogo Jota at Anfield.
Despite his impulsive tendencies, Xhaka has been a hugely important component of Mikel Arteta’s ever-evolving Gunners over the past 18 months. He developed a stout midfield partnership with Thomas Partey last season, and he performs an important tactical role in Arteta’s system. Previously, Xhaka would take up deeper positions in the build-up to facilitate the advancement of the left-back, but now he’s expected to occupy more advanced zones himself and contribute in the final third.
For a youthful Arsenal side, the experience of Xhaka is paramount. An infamous public outburst stripped him of the captaincy towards the end of Unai Emery’s tenure, but he’s been brought back into the leadership fold by Arteta. While Martin Odegaard is the skipper, Xhaka has said that he doesn’t “need an armband to be a leader”.
Will Granit Xhaka’s form hurt Arsenal in the long run?
2021/22 was arguably Xhaka’s finest campaign in north London. Yet, still, many believed the club had to bolster their midfield this summer. The versatile playmaker Fabio Vieira was signed from Porto, but supporters believed that an upgrade on Xhaka remained a necessity due to the 29-year-old’s limitations in the final third.
Arsenal were linked with a move for Lyon’s Lucas Paqueta, while the club’s interest in Youri Tielemans is well-documented. These are two players that are well-suited to the left-sided #8 role in Arteta’s possession-oriented system.
Xhaka, meanwhile, was given the chance to impress in a more advanced role during pre-season amid Fabio Vieira’s injury absence and the midfielder starred in the 4-0 rout of Chelsea. On that humid Florida evening, the Swiss international immediately struck a healthy dynamic with new arrival Oleksandr Zinchenko and the pair’s relationship down Arsenal’s left has been a feature of their opening two Premier League encounters.
However, the addition of Zinchenko from Manchester City has thrust Xhaka’s necessity into doubt. The Ukrainian can essentially do exactly what Xhaka did in the build-up last season, and his capacity to play centrally has forced the 29-year-old to contribute higher up the field.
This worked to tremendous effect against Leicester as Xhaka scored and assisted in the 4-2 victory.
The Gunners are purring in attack with Xhaka seemingly playing a crucial role; why does the title suggest this is a bad thing?
Well, while Xhaka has started the season excellently, he’s certainly not the ideal profile for the role he’s currently performing. He lacks the athleticism to efficiently rotate with Arsenal’s spritely attackers in the final third, and he doesn’t possess the subtlety in possession to combine in tight spaces.
Overall, Arteta is fitting a square peg in a round hole with Xhaka and while that peg is squeezing in right now, I fear that this isn’t sustainable and Arsenal will eventually regret not signing a player of Tielemans’ profile because of the Swiss international’s positive start to the season. Admittedly, the Belgian didn’t do much to convince the Arsenal hierarchy to hasten their pursuit of him on Saturday.
Fortunately, though, Arteta does have several other internal options for the left-sided #8 role. Emile Smith Rowe, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Fabio Vieira are all possibilities if Xhaka’s final third discomfort eventually rears its head. If Arsenal are to evolve further under Arteta, then Xhaka’s utilisation as an advanced #8 must be reduced as the season progresses.
What I’m not suggesting is that he’s frozen out and eventually sold in the near future. Far from it. As I noted at the start of this piece, Xhaka is a fine footballer who’s an important dressing room presence.
The 29-year-old is imperative for internal stability, but he’s far from the ideal profile for the role he’s currently performing despite his bright start to 2022/23.