Since his move from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2016 Granit Xhaka has split opinion.
His impressive passing range has been revered, reinforced by the fact he played the most passes of any player in the Premier League last season (3,116 in total), and only missed 154 minutes of the entire league campaign – but his lapses of concentration defensively have bruised his reputation.
In the beginning, it was clear he was struggling to adapt to the pace of the Premier League but in the last four months of last season notable improvements could be seen in all areas.
Last season Xhaka got seven assists (more than the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Son Heung-Min and Sergio Aguero). He also didn’t pick up a red card all season, which, although shouldn’t be praised, still shows his growing maturity.
It was less than 10 days ago that he penned a new long-term deal with Arsenal which was accompanied by a glowing review from new boss Unai Emery:
“I’m delighted that Granit has extended his contract with us. He’s an important member of the squad and is still young so will be able to develop even more. I hope he has a successful World Cup with Switzerland and comes back fit and ready for the new season.”
In Switzerland’s group E fixture against Serbia, a match marred with not only competitive animosity but political animosity, Xhaka was able to turn raw emotion into a fantastic performance on the world stage.
For Switzerland, Xhaka is the nucleus of their team and everything good about their play goes through him. Off the ball, his central midfield partner, Valon Behrami, slotted in next to him and pressed Serbia aggressively as soon as they stepped into the Swiss defensive half. That limited the amount of ground Xhaka had to cover.
When Switzerland are on the ball you can really see the trust they have in Xhaka’s technical ability.
Their shape changes from a 4-2-3-1 that sits deeper and defends in two banks of four to more of a 4-3-3 where Blerim Džemaili moves from the #10 position to left centre midfield and Behrami pushes up into right centre midfield.
Ricardo Rodriguez and new Arsenal signing, Stephan Lichtsteiner, push ahead of the two centre-halves while Džemaili and Behrami push into advanced half spaces – they do this to give Xhaka passing options – if he couldn’t find the line breaking pass into the half spaces he had the option to go backwards or wide.
This is also aided by the fact they have fairly adept ball-playing centre-backs in Fabian Schär and Manuel Akanji.
Xhaka showed composure beyond his years to receive the ball under pressure and keep the ball moving with limited touches despite being constantly forced to receive the ball with his back to goal in crowds of Serbian players – but in a first half that was greatly dominated by Serbia, he and his team-mates struggled to find the space to be really effective and found themselves trailing 1-0.
In the second half, Džemaili was replaced by the pacey Schalke forward, Breel Embolo, who moved to the right wing which allowed Shaqiri more of a free role.
The central striker, Haris Seferović, who was only able to get five touches in the opening 45 minutes, was also replaced with the more dynamic and mobile Mario Gavranović. Shaqiri’s relentless moving in between lines unsettled Serbia and the resulting space gave Xhaka more targets to hit.
In the 52nd minute, Xhaka showed he can create a World Cup highlight of his own.
He was able to latch onto a deflected Shaqiri shot and, even though the ball was curling away from goal, he let fly a thunderbolt from the edge of the box which went through a crowd of Serbian players before hitting the back of the net and equalising the scoreline.
Xhaka and Switzerland didn’t let up after that and continued to create chances with Shaqiri hitting the post from the corner of the penalty area not long after.
The match looked like the spoils would be shared before Shaqiri ran behind the Serbian defence to slot past Stojkovic in the last few minutes and win the game for Switzerland.
I believe we’ve seen astute performances from Granit Xhaka in an Arsenal shirt since the turn of the year and games like this that prove he can respond to adversity show why the news of his recently signed contract is great for the club.