For the last few months, Granit Xhaka’s performances for Switzerland have consistently been better than they’ve been for Arsenal. We’re exploring why that might be.
Last season, I was a big fan of our new midfield signing.
His passing was ridiculous, with a 90% completion rate despite regularly going long, and playing more passes than anyone else in the Arsenal team. He was passionate, commanding the players around him, and I thought it was unfair to hold two very dodgy red cards against him.
He even had a good long-shot on him for when all else failed.
However, this season it’s been a completely different story.
His passing is way down at 83% despite playing more of those passes backwards, and he’s already racked up as many errors leading to a goal as he did in the entirety of last season (per Squawka before they died).
But when I watch him put on a Switzerland shirt, suddenly he’s back to normal, dictating the game from deep.
So what’s different?
Firstly, the role Granit is asked to play in each team.
For Switzerland, he’s clearly a deep-lying playmaker. When anyone on the national side picks the ball up, they play it to Xhaka, sitting in front of the defence. Then he finds someone in space, and the attack begins. Either that, or it breaks down, and the midfielder gets the ball back to try again.
For Arsenal, the 25-year-old is asked to run from box-to-box, and pick up more advanced positions. This is bad for two reasons. It means that he has less time on the ball to make decisions, as well as less space to execute the passes he wants to play, which forces him into mistakes.
It also means the centre-backs behind him have to pick up the slack, and start moves themselves. If you’ve never watched them try to do so before, it generally involves passing it around the back until you reach the wing-back on the opposite side, then turning round and going back again. All, of course, accompanied by groans from Arsenal fans every time it happens.
The second thing that’s different when Xhaka pulls on his Switzerland shirt, is the midfield partner he’s lining up alongside. Occasionally Ramsey and Xhaka look like a good partnership, but at others they look like they aren’t even on the same team, leaving each other to play their own games.
In contrast, 20-year-old Denis Zakaria was the best player on the pitch against Northern Ireland on Thursday. Occasionally, he dropped even deeper than Xhaka, when required, but he knew when to help Granit out in possession and when to make runs. He was formidable on the ball and seemingly impossible to get off it.
As a result, the Arsenal man had the freedom to do what he wanted all game.
If Arsenal played a three in midfield, with at least one player willing to help out defensively, and Xhaka as the deepest of the three, I guarantee he’d be doing the same for the Gunners.
Until we see a change like that at club level, Granit will keep picking up the Swiss Player of the Year awards while the Arsenal fans criticise him weekly.