There have been approximately 1.5 million articles written about Granit Xhaka in the last 96 hours (that number is courtesy of The White House) and this is one more to go on the pile that is adding up almost as quickly as there are reasons to loathe Piers Morgan.
But if you think I’m going to rant about his temper issues, then you’re mistaken.
Frankly, this is the best thing that could have happened to our Swiss playmaker.
Yes, it is hugely inconvenient to both him and Arsenal at the moment, but for Xhaka to improve as a player, he needed his greatest weakness to be exposed in the most blatant way possible. It was the only way that would convince him that he needs to focus on keeping his composure at important times.
Granit Xhaka doesn’t have a temper problem. What happened to him last Sunday wasn’t a result of him losing his cool. He didn’t lunge into Steven Defour because he was annoyed at the Belgian in any way, he lunged in because he was utterly and totally desperate to atone for cocking-up five seconds previously.
That’s not anger, that’s fear. And the difference is key.
Yes, he failed to act in an optimum manner when he miscontrolled the ball just outside his own half. But, ever since Patrick Vieira left the club a decade ago, Arsenal have been crying, pleading, begging for a midfielder that will just go get the ball and attack the opposition with it. Alex Song was almost that player, until he got too fond of playing the same chipped through ball over the defence to worry about defending any more.
Mathieu Flamini was that player for half a season, then left to go to Milan, then came back with a new-found ability to point at players running around him, and nothing else. Mikel Arteta was that player for half a season until his knees turned to dust. Francis Coquelin will go get the ball as well as anyone in the Premier League can, only for him to then bring back the ball and sit, like some obedient puppy who has been trained only to go fetch when commanded to.
What Xhaka was trying to do was make up for his own mistake and get Arsenal back on the front foot. How many times have we seen Arsenal players over the last few years make a mistake, spend a second or two bemoaning their own error before sauntering back in defence whilst hoping that someone else bails them out of trouble? That urgency that Xhaka showed has been something that Arsenal too often fail to show during games.
Am I defending the tackle Xhaka made? No. As incompetent Jon Moss may be, Xhaka’s tackle was almost the textbook red card offence in today’s football; two-footed, feet off the ground, player not in complete control of his body. If the roles were reversed, fans would be screaming for the Burnley player to be sent off, and rightly so. But instead of criticising the action, we should be focusing on the decision making that was behind making that tackle.
That’s why I’m not worried about Xhaka’s future as a player.
Yes, a little bit more prudence in regards to his tackling would be welcome, but we have to remember that he’s not in the team to stop players from scoring goals. I do think this gets forgotten when he is described as a ‘defensive midfielder’. He’s there to help the defence, not be part of it.
Xhaka has been brought into the club to be Arsene Wenger’s version of Xabi Alonso, a player he has admired for years and once almost prised out of Liverpool in 2008. Alonso is rightly regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders of his era, but is he actually a good tackler? No. Just ask Frank Lampard. What Alonso made an art form out of was to be consistently in the middle of opposition attacks, do just enough to help out defensively, and then use his prodigious left foot to carve teams apart from deep.
If we want Xhaka to be Alonso 2.0, then not only does Xhaka have to adapt to the speed of the Premier League and realise that he doesn’t have to dive into tackles when he loses possession, but Arsenal have to adapt to having their centre-backs do more than just line-up thirty yards from goal and watch counter-attacks run around them. It was frankly refreshing to watch both Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi encourage the midfield to push up, and leave them to focus on marking both of Burnley’s centre-forwards. At some point, the defence, and the goalkeeper too, have to be trusted to do their jobs.
Xhaka certainly has some work to do in order to refine his game, but dulling his competitive edge in order to stop him getting sent off is something that needs to be avoided at all costs. He was bought by Arsenal because of his desire to get stuck in and win the ball back, and for ‘Wengerball’ to succeed, he needs to have the freedom to do that whenever the opportunity arises.