Granit Xhaka: A player still very much misunderstood
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
As this period without football drags on, I’ve resorted to writing articles based off of comments on posts that I put on Instagram. I did this with Matteo Guendouzi, responding to claims that he’s terrible on the ball by doing an in depth analysis on his game. On Saturday evening, I released Granit Xhaka’s statistics to my followers, knowing full well that some people would respond with some very inaccurate statements, which would provide me with a reason to hit back and do a full analysis on our former captain.
“What about the other stats you’re leaving out? Errors leading to chances, how often he loses possession and more importantly in what position? This isn’t even half the story. One assist isn’t even half the story considering his strength is on the ball and we have a lot of runners.”
“Out of position, passes always backwards and headers won/lost. I hope we get rid of him. He’s a massive liability.”
The ‘Xhaka hate squad’ poured out in their masses as you’d expect, filling my comments section with strange declarations about his game. I know what they’ll say. “It’s not an agenda or hate, it’s just criticism of his game.” Well, it is an agenda when you ignore factual and statistical information that contradicts your point so you can push negativity against this player.
Look, Xhaka is far from a flawless player, but I still feel he’s very much misunderstood. His role, what he’s supposed to do in our system, what his strengths and weaknesses are, all seem to be very much ill-perceived amongst a select group of people. As I said with Guendouzi, it’s reasonable to be sceptical of certain aspects of his game, but not the aspects which he’s quite evidently very good at.
So, with that being said, I thought I’d take an in depth look at his game, assessing what his strengths are, and where he could certainly improve.
I think everyone can see that Xhaka’s main strengths are his on the ball abilities. Not only are his ball retention skills good, he’s also one of the best ball progresses in the league, and has been for several seasons now. He’s very good at moving the ball further up the pitch and getting it into the final third to allow flair players to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Xhaka has an impressive 88% pass accuracy in the League this season, which demonstrates his ball retention skills. He keeps it ticking along nicely for Arsenal, and enables the side to control possession more easily. In fact, we’ve averaged a 7% higher rate of possession when he’s been on the pitch this season than when he’s not been playing.
There’s a perception that the Swiss midfielder gives the ball away far too frequently in dangerous areas, which often leads to the opposition creating good opportunities. Whilst this certainly may have been a blatant issue in his game in previous years, it’s an issue he has significantly eradicated. This season, Xhaka has made zero errors leading to an opposition shot, whilst he only made two combined in the previous two seasons. He made six alone in his debut season at the club.
Whilst you may say this doesn’t tell the entire story because it does not erase the possibility that he still gives the ball away in dangerous areas as the opposition could be wasteful or one of our players could make a recovery, his substantially reduced turnover numbers do contradict this. His 0.66 turnovers per 90 is a lot lower than both Lucas Torreira, 1.64/90, and Matteo Guendouzi, 1.86/90.
You could suggest reduced turnovers is down to the side on the whole having less possession this season, but the fact that both Torreira and Guendouzi still have very large turnover numbers would contradict that. These increases in Xhaka’s ball retention statistics suggests he’s become more press resistant this campaign, but could also be down to the new system he’s found himself in under Arteta, which suits him perfectly, and he’s adapted to astutely.
The former Basel man now operates as an auxiliary left-back, dropping into these deep wide areas as the conventional left-back pushes on, and acts as one of the deep ball distributors in the Arsenal side. This allows the game to be played in front of him, where he’s more comfortable, and also enables him to show off his expansive range of passing, often seen swinging vertical long balls across the pitch to speed up the Arsenal attack and exploit the space created on the opposing flank. Both his deep progression numbers and accurate long ball numbers have increased since Arteta took over- understandable when operating in more of a possession-orientated side, but also exemplary of his upturn in form.
Xhaka’s 8.2 deep progressions per 90 remains means he remains one of the most prolific deep progresses of the ball in the league, despite playing in such a poor side for the majority of the season that has failed to keep hold of the ball for long periods. If you sit him deep in midfield and put him alongside a ball winner, who is also press resistant and very mobile (cough cough Thomas Partey), you’ll see the very best of Granit Xhaka.
Despite all the obvious benefits Granit Xhaka brings to the side when in possession, out of possession, I think the term ‘liability’ is actually somewhat reasonable. Not blessed with natural pace or agility, when Arsenal are counted, Xhaka’s lack of mobility can leave him very exposed in the transition.
Whilst it’s clear that he’s found a solution to his inability to deal with intense pressing (both by the systematic change under Arteta and just learning to release the ball more quickly and with more caution), he still very much struggles with the defensive side of the game. Yes, he’s occasionally seen making a good crunching tackle, or positioning himself well to make a vital intervention, but in general, he's ineffective defensively.
These defensive inefficiencies are reflected in his poor defensive actions numbers, making just 0.94 tackles per 90 and 0.71 interceptions per 90. Whilst these numbers aren’t possession adjusted (because who tf knows how to calculate that), due to Arsenal’s low possession statistics in general this season, these numbers are likely to overestimate his defensive contributions. His inability to cover large areas of the pitch, lack of agility when attacking midfielders come at him and lack of recovery pace make it difficult for him to position himself correctly to carry out defensive actions.
Furthermore, the Swiss also doesn’t contribute to the press particularly frequently, making just 14.9 pressures per 90 and 4.29 pressure regains per 90 in the league this season. In comparison, Geundouzi, who plays a similar role, makes 20.8 pressures and 5.82 pressure regains per 90. Looking at Pep’s Manchester City model, you’d expect Arteta to begin to mould his Arsenal side into more of a cohesive pressing machine. Whether or not Xhaka can adapt to this remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look likely.
Jorginho at Chelsea faced similar problems to Xhaka last season. However, the way in which they have overcome his defensive issues is by packing highly energetic, athletic and mobile players around the Italian to do the defensive work for him, whilst reaping the benefits of his ball progression abilities. Arsenal could adopt a similar approach, although this may take substantial investment in the transfer market.
As for the lack of direct goal involvement in the form of key passes, assist and goals, as I said with Guendouzi, it’s not really what his role requires, but you’d expect slightly increased xG and xA numbers from him. Having said that, the Arsenal team across the board has struggled in this department all season (aside from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang).
That’s about it. A full analysis on Granit Xhaka’s game. I hope this helped, and I hope you enjoyed reading, because I certainly enjoyed writing. Cheers.