I set myself a little experiment yesterday and took notes on the match. My first note is three minutes into the match, “Kolasinac w/a nearly disastrous pass. This is why he doesn’t play”. My second note, “Xhaka fouls Alexis”. My third note, “Xhaka ridiculous pass”.
From there there were only two notes – shots by Lindlehoff and Nelson – before the big moment, the 15th minute when Nelson lost the ball, United passed to Pogba, Xhaka dramatically went sliding in and Pogba just skipped over him and walked on by to score. I mentioned this fact on twitter, that Xhaka didn’t follow his man and that he made a crazy and unnecessary wild slide tackle, and you know what happened? People vehemently disagreed with me. It was Bellerin’s fault, some said, because he should have been covering Alexis.
Granit Xhaka is a polarizing figure for many and for good reason, because he’s often equal measures brilliant and crazy. This match wasn’t an exception. As I pointed out in my by the numbers piece on Arseblog News, Xhaka led Arsenal with 0.80 passes per minute and leads almost all players in total passes, is second in passes in the opposition half, and after yesterday he even has 7 assists, one fewer than Christian Eriksen!
The thing is that you can hold both facts in your head at the same time. It isn’t mutually exclusive to say that Xhaka is a brilliant passer and also makes a lot of mistakes defensively. That’s just reality, a reality he has carried with him since his days at Borussia Monchengladbach. Which, was pointed out to us all here on this blog by Naveen (who is in med school and doesn’t have time to contribute anymore) before he signed.
In yesterday’s match against Man U, Xhaka stood out on both ends of the pitch. In the 16th minute, there was the flying tackle and failure to follow his man, let’s look at the screen caps and see what happened:
The whole problem starts here when Xhaka flies in to try to tackle Pogba. Not only was it a dangerous and stupid, out of control tackle, but it was completely unnecessary. If he just squares up with Pogba and marks him, there is no danger.
At this point Xhaka is up, Maitland-Niles ran all the way back to pressure Pogba into the pass, and Xhaka is now strolling. Bellerin is aware of Alexis on his shoulder and has a quick look.
Mavropanos closes down Lukaku, Pogba walks by, and three Arsenal players are watching Lukaku with the ball. Not a good look for the Arsenal, and something the next manager will have to sort out. Why doesn’t AMN follow Pogba? Why doesn’t Chambo follow Pogba? Why doesn’t Xhaka follow Pogba? We don’t know. Xhaka was the captain, maybe he’s providing the leadership example. Regardless, Bellerin will be left covering both Pogba and Alexis.
Chambo does eventually go mark Pogba but it’s way too late. Alexis gets the shot off, Bellerin blocks and an unmarked Pogba scores. I like the Xhaka gangsta lean to get a better view of the shot, also Kolasinac’s head is down, Nelson has his hands on his hips, and Maitland-Niles is way out of the play.
It was all started with Xhaka’s weird tackle but after that no one defended Pogba. This goal really shouldn’t have happened.
Later in the match, Xhaka redeemed himself! It’s easy to forget that he won the tackle that set up the Arsenal goal. He nicked the ball off (Matic?) and passed to Mkhitaryan who scored with a nutmeg shot. Great stuff from the Arsenal midfielder, let’s be fair.
The third goal is probably a bit unfair to pin on Xhaka. He was the one defending Fellaini on a crossed ball but Fellaini is a specialist in aerial duels, he’s taller than Xhaka by a few inches and commands the space around him well. Xhaka is almost always going to lose that aerial duel. Tactically, what you’d probably rather see happen is for players to close down the service. That didn’t happen, Monreal tried to get out there but Young had too much time and had already picked out the run of Fellaini. The service was also pinpoint, and again, not the fault of Xhaka.
As an aside, I do revel in the fact that United have spent billions of dollars to build a club which relies on Marouane Fellaini to rescue them with route one football. I mean, if you wanted that, you could have just signed Peter Crouch!
Still, Xhaka did lose the aerial duel. He was the one in position, he missed the header, Fellaini scored. That’s not a harsh criticism of him, just a fact.
I think Xhaka is going to be with Arsenal for a long time. Hopefully the next manager can sort out his individual defensive problems and the knock-on team defensive problems that we saw in the first goal. If not, it’s going to be another long season at Arsenal.