As years go, Granit Xhaka’s 2022 hasn’t been half bad.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve seen the Swiss midfielder restore his reputation among the fanbase, excel in a new role which has been key to the Gunners’ early 2022/23 success, and now he’s captaining his country on the grandest stage of them all.
I for one was sceptical in regards to Xhaka’s renaissance as a more advanced midfielder in Mikel Arteta’s Guardiola-inspired set-up, but the midfielder has continued to perform at an extremely high level. By the time the World Cup-enforced break rolled around, Xhaka had registered seven goal contributions in all competitions, including six in the Premier League.
He’s a man reborn!
Granit Xhaka’s performance vs Brazil will give Mikel Arteta something to think about
Xhaka’s attention has shifted over to the national team, where he’s competing in his third World Cup and first as Switzerland’s skipper. He’s leading a side that entered the tournament with high hopes given their talent and recent deep run at Euro 2020 which saw them exit on penalties to Spain in the quarter-finals.
The Swiss have garnered a reputation for mastering the group stage at major tournaments. While they’ve often been limited in some parts of the pitch, their defence is typically stubborn and they’ve boasted enough attacking verve to trouble opponents in transition. However, the quality of their 2022 squad has seen manager Murat Yakin take a more dynamic approach.
The foundations of their solid units of recent tournaments remain intact, but Xhaka’s development means Switzerland are more capable of controlling games.
In their World Cup opener against Cameroon, Yakin utilised Xhaka in a similar role to his Arsenal function. He was operating high up in the left half-space, often seeking to penetrate in behind, but the lack of time on the training pitch meant the Gunners midfielder wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as his teammates when he attacked the box.
It wouldn’t have taken long for Xhaka to realise that Ruben Vargas is no Gabriel Martinelli.
Switzerland’s eventual 1-0 victory handed them a free shot at Brazil on Matchday 2. In the build-up to the contest, Xhaka promised that he’d be willing to “smash” his club teammates Gabriel Jesus and Martinelli should it be necessary, but no situations arose – thankfully.
"“I told Gabby Martinelli and Gabby Jesus if you are running one against one against our goalkeeper, I will smash you! It doesn’t matter that we are playing in the same team,” said Xhaka ahead of the Brazil game."
Against the pre-tournament favourites, Yakin opted to return Xhaka to the role he usually performs for the national team. The skipper took immense responsibility in the build-up and functioned in a single pivot with Remo Freuler and Djibril Sow operating higher up as advanced #8s. Xhaka had essentially evolved into Thomas Partey for the day.
While Xhaka does have limitations in deeper areas, he ended the contest with an assured 88.2% pass completion having completed the third-most passes in the Switzerland side. He was able to dictate proceedings for albeit fleeting spells and showed off his capacity to progress the ball upfield. The Swiss quarterback completed a team-high four progressive passes.
Overall, Xhaka emanated calm in a mightily tough position against Brazil. Efficient with the ball and dutiful without it, the Arsenal man impressed in a role he’s rarely asked to perform for his club.
Xhaka’s resurgence under Arteta in north London began when playing alongside Partey in a double pivot where he’d drop into the defence to free up Kieran Tierney or Nuno Tavares down the left. He’s since evolved into Ilkay Gundogan lite at the Emirates but his work for the national team would suggest that he’s more than competent deputising for Partey in the single pivot when required.
It’s something for Arteta to consider when Arsenal return to action after Christmas.