Dr. Xhaka and Mr. Granit

This post is a bit rushed because I have a lot to do before work but here’s a post that I know everyone will like: I think the one player that Unai Emery could most help next season is Granit Xhaka.

Here are Xhaka’s overall defensive stats the last four years. On the right-most column, Xhaka’s numbers of tackles per game, interceptions, and blocked passes were all at a 4 year low. That correlates with Arsenal’s play this season, where the club also dropped off in terms of tackles, interceptions, and blocked passes per game (I’ll show you the numbers in a sec.). And the club allowed a Wenger-at-Arsenal career high number of goals.

But Xhaka’s numbers are a bit strange. Arsenal column pointed out on Twitter that there was a change in formation around January time which resulted in an uptick in Xhaka’s tackle numbers. But I took a look at each of the games and what you actually see is a massive improvement in form in the last 10 games of the season, not in terms of bulk tackling (making a lot of tackles, he will never be that kind of all-action player), but in terms of successfully winning the ball back.

Why is the last 10 games a weird cut off point? That was when the team had the very public “cry for help” meeting and when players were told that they were going to have to figure it (how to play defense) out for themselves.

In the previous 28 games, Xhaka attempted roughly the same number of tackles per game, 3.2, but crucially, he won just 58% of his tackles up to that point. He won just 1.9 tackles a game in those first 28 games. In the last 10 he was much better, winning 84% of 3.4 tackles per game, or 2.7 tackles per game.

It looks like either Xhaka figured it out for himself or that someone else helped him out with his positioning and in helping him to make some adjustments to when he makes a tackle. He did have the rather high-profile missed tackle against Paul Pogba but that was one of just 5 missed tackles in his last 10 matches.

From an individual standpoint, Xhaka has had a very rough year. He raised his attacking output (blue) from set plays:

But attempted fewer dribbles than ever before (and as a result was dispossessed less) but also had more bad touches:

And while his passing numbers went up, his long passing (without Giroud around), went down.

And his aerial duels percent went way down, which is a mystery.

What all this shows to me, especially the tackling, is that this is a player who might benefit most from some good coaching. That is the Unai promise.

He’s never going to be a big interceptor of the ball and probably won’t ever give Arsenal big blocked pass numbers. But those are things the team might be able to get from a more active midfield partner like Torreira.


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