Granit Xhaka’s first season assessed

A flop. Overpriced, over-rated and underwhelming.

That’s what many critics were keen to brand Granit Xhaka just months after signing for Arsenal last summer.

Not mobile enough, unconvincing defensively with a poor disciplinary record. So why would the Gunners spend so much for the Switzerland international and not go for N’Golo Kanté instead?

As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka’s strengths have proved important in helping Arsenal build attacks from deeper positions with increased urgency. The injury-prone Santi Cazorla has been regularly sidelined and it makes a refreshing change to see someone else impress in that role.

Aaron Ramsey’s attack-minded approach means he’s not suited to having those responsibilities whilst maintaining awareness defensively. It’s also fair to say that Francis Coquelin has a more defensive-minded approach and less technical ability, meaning he’d struggle to consistently spray probing passes to prompt players forward in attacking positions.

Xhaka is a goal threat himself too, as evidenced by his wonderstrikes against Hull City and Nottingham Forest. Ludogorets and, more recently, Manchester United also felt his increasing influence at a time when he was needed as Arsenal’s metronome.

In terms of defensive capability, Xhaka was regularly criticised and questioned by critics last season. Poor discipline and an unreliable figure, they continued to say. Five bookings in the Premier League, having played 2,438 minutes across the season means the 24-year-old averaged a card every 6.4 matches, ignoring the double suspension he received after dismissals against Swansea and Burnley.

Across 46 matches (all competitions), Xhaka received twelve bookings in total. 3,553 minutes of football and the midfielder’s reputation for accumulating cards has unsurprisingly followed him to England, despite being in a league renowned for it’s physicality.

You can excuse him on the odd occasion for being somewhat overzealous, though these tendencies are likely to be ironed out over time. He’s a leader and his commanding performances from midfield last season helped bring an increased steel in midfield.

When half of his bookings are for trivial things like asking the referee why he didn’t book Emre Can after his reckless challenge during our 3-1 defeat against Liverpool in March, you begin to question whether the 24-year-old is simply being punished because of his reputation for bookings back in the Bundesliga.

xhaka linc
English referee Anthony Taylor (L) shows a yellow card to Arsenal’s Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka (R) during the English FA cup quarter final football match between Arsenal and Lincoln City at The Emirates Stadium in London on March 11, 2017. (Picture source: Ian Kington / AFP / Getty Images)

Defensively, he’s not as bad as many will have you believe.

His tackling technique needs work but his positional awareness is continually improving with regular minutes and he has shown his capability to frequently intercept the opposition in its tracks, which is important to protect the backline and relieve pressure on his team-mates.

77 completed tackles, 42 interceptions and 35 clearances in England’s top flight, for a player that struggles to defend? Those statistics just highlight the fact Xhaka’s influence from midfield often goes unnoticed.

He’s a unique player and one that divides opinion, but is an integral component of Arsenal in the long-term and has displayed his world-class potential enough not to worry about harsh criticism of his performances, instead focusing on the job he’s been asked to do.