In just over a year at Arsenal, Xhaka has shown signs of being a quality midfielder, yet further improvement is needed.
If there’s one thing that’s been impressive about Granit Xhaka, it’s the proficiency of his left foot. The Swiss midfielder favours that side totally but has the full range skills you’d want in a passer.
He can drive a pass across the field, ping a long ball into the channel, lob the ball over a defence and even spin some outrageous passes with the outside of his boot.
As a welcome bonus, he puts plenty of power in his shots. Most of them fly into row z, but every now and then he catches teams out by working the goalkeeper.
Having the technique is one thing, but having vision is another.
Xhaka has that handy skill down, too.
This is a player signed by Arsenal due to his ability to thread passes through the lines and find attackers in advanced areas from his deep position in midfield. His reputation at Borussia Monchengladbach was earned off the back of his ability to move the ball forward to their vibrant attacking line.
The idea was that he’d do the same at Arsenal to find the likes Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
For most of last season, he did that.
He would sit at the base of the midfield spraying passes all over the place, rivalling the pass success rates of the likes of Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta, who played the role before he arrived.
At the same time, a couple of glaring flaws in his game came to light.
The first was that, compared to the typical Arsenal midfield player, he was heavy-footed.
The second was his tendency to scythe players down with tackles he would only get away with if it was 1970. The two problems were related and exacerbated by Arsenal’s system.
To play as the holding midfielder for Arsenal means having negotiate vast amounts of space with little assistance.
The attacking, open nature of Arsene Wenger’s set-up leaves this lone anchor far too much to do by himself. Arteta, a player with sensible positioning who knew his limitations, coped better than others. As did, for a short period of time, Francis Coquelin, who brought some mobility and aggression to the role.
Xhaka, on the other hand, has neither the intelligent positioning nor the mobility, but plenty of aggression. Hence, Xhaka’s early Arsenal career was defined by red cards and not classy midfield play.
As his first season progressed, he improved his defending.
Arsenal, as a team, became more compact towards the end of the campaign and took some of the burden off Xhaka’s shoulders. This has continued into this season, but a new problem has come to light: his inability to play the ball under pressure.
For a player who can be such an effective passer, his passing statistics this season make for concerning reading.
On average, he’s completed 82.5% of his passes. A player in his role and of his ability should be averaging close to 90% (for the sake of comparison: at the time of writing, Manchester City’s Fernandinho averages 90.3%).
In the 5-2 win over Everton, he completed 84% of his passes, a similiar amount as against City. In the 2-1 defeat at Watford, it was an appalling 76%. This is well below the standard Xhaka typically sets for himself and Arsenal set for their midfielders in general.
Identifying why this is occurring, though, is a little tricky.
Xhaka could simply be going through a rough patch of form, brought about by the shaky nature of Arsenal’s season.
Equally, this could be another tactical issue.
Last season, Xhaka had an extra attacker to find, whereas this season that attacker has become a defender. Much of Xhaka’s passing is to one of the three centre backs lined-up behind him. Hence, it’s possible that his wasteful passing is being caused by a lack of options in front of him.
It’s a problem that only gets worse when Arsenal face an opposition press.
With the team often so spread out, it’s hard for the deeper players to play around a high press. More often than not, Xhaka receives the ball with his back to goal in his own half.
That’s the signal for the opposition team to press and force a turnover, knowing that he does not have the skill and agility to escape.
The fact that we know Xhaka can do better suggests he isn’t a bad player at all, nor has he suddenly turned into one.
At the same time, there are areas of his game he can continue to work on, and things the team can do to help him return to the form we know he’s capable of.