In the last game of the 2022/23 Premier League season, Granit Xhaka scored two goals. Each time he scored he was met with a huge wave of celebration from his teammates and the crowd. He smiled from cheek to cheek, beaming with joy. It was the perfect way to end his Arsenal career.
When Xhaka arrived at Arsenal, I was ecstatic. I had looked at all the stats that season and by my metrics (age, long ball passing %, tackles, interceptions, and number of times dispossessed) he was one of the best CDMs in Europe. After years of begging Mr. Wenger to buy a DM, he’d seemingly finally gone and done it.
There was a small fly in the party punch however. One of my former writers on here, Naveen, wrote a pretty in depth article on Xhaka. He’d been watching him in the Bundesliga and while he agreed about the passing range, he saw a player who was a liability in the deep role. A player who would often get red carded because he wasn’t mobile enough to cover the ground needed to play as the shield for an Arsenal defense which played incredibly high up the pitch and played with very little organized pressure. Xhaka was also a player who was great when given time to make passes but if pressured wasn’t able to break the press with a dribble.
“I hope you’re wrong” is what I said, I’m pretty sure. He wasn’t wrong and it didn’t take long for teams to work out what to do with Xhaka. In his first season at Arsenal he got two red cards and gave up two penalties.
When Unai Emery took over he tried to “fix” the Xhaka problem by playing him in a double-pivot. This worked to a degree. The red cards went away (for a time) but he was still committing errors and conceding penalties. When Arteta came in he initially continued the double-pivot play and simplified everything about Arsenal’s play, getting the whole team to commit to playing defense and not playing so high up the pitch, thus exposing Xhaka a lot less. Arteta also stopped making Xhaka the main man through which everything started. I wrote about it at the time, saying that Arteta had solved the Xhaka problem by making him less of the focal point. His passing dipped from 87 a game to 67. His passing went back up to 80 per game the next year but then it went back down to 61 and this season it’s just 49 per game.
Xhaka is no longer the one dropping deep, collecting the ball, and spraying passes all over the pitch. Instead, he’s playing like Gundogan or another of the Man City midfielder/forwards, who attack the box from the half spaces, and it’s been a remarkable transformation. He went from a player who had less than one touch per 90 in the opp. penalty area to 3.18! He’s no longer being called upon to shield the back 4, to make a last ditch challenge, or to break the opposition’s pressure. Instead, he’s pressing up high and crashing the box in attack.
That’s how Arteta transformed him from a player that almost everyone wanted gone to a player that almost everyone loves. Seven goals and seven assists in a season where Arsenal finished 2nd in the League will do that for a player!
It’s a huge reminder that sometimes a player can seem like he’s the problem when the real problem is that the manager is asking him to do something that he can’t do. I think we’ve learned that lesson the hard way over the years with many of the players at Arsenal.
Rumor has it that Xhaka is going to Bayer Leverkusen to play under Xabi Alonso. I’m very curious where he’s going to play there. Last season, Xabi mostly used a 343 and they already have a number 8 (Andrich) which would suggest that Xabi wants Granit to be a number 6 but I hope that isn’t true. The Bundesliga is even more counter attacking than the Premier League, placing Xhaka in the DM role there would be a potentially disastrous move. My hope is that Xabi is looking to play more of positional football style and lets Granit continue in the left sided half-space. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Either way, it’s been good to see Arteta revive Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal career. There was never any question about his dedication and professionalism and clearly Arteta saw that and figured out a way to make it work for the whole team.
The big question is who replaces him?
Apparently Emile Smith Rowe is staying at Arsenal next year and I have huge hopes that he can get some time in that position. His pressing, close control, and natural attacking flair would be a perfect fit there. Lokonga is another player who might be able to play that position, though his loan spell at Palace wasn’t great and he seems to be on the outs with Arteta. Of course there’s also Vieira (66kg), who I tend to think is far too slight to be playing in the Premier League but then Jorginho (64kg) is a DM, so I guess anything is possible!
Who do you want to replace Xhaka?