The Anti-Sherlock Holmes Solves the Case of the In-Form Swiss
By Mac Johnson
Ladies and Gentleman, he’s back on the case. Everyone’s favourite detective has appeared to solve another mystery, but with a little twist: he’s American, and nowhere near as smart. That’s right, the Anti-Sherlock Holmes is here. In his forays on the Arsenal Cannon Podcast Extravaganza, he brings you brilliant insights, like “Emile Smith-Rowe is good at football,” and “having energy is important,” and his tactical points are nothing short of third-best on the site. His articles for WeLoveYouArsenal are nothing short of pretty decent. Please, give it up for Mac. In today’s mystery, he’ll unravel a conundrum that has been puzzling even the least cynical of Arsenal fans in recent weeks: When did Granit Xhaka stop being s**t? He isn’t putting in any 3/10 performances, he hasn’t given away a penalty since May 2019, and he hasn’t been skinned by a Championship-quality midfielder in quite some time. Apart from his idiotic red against Burnley, he’s actually been good. What happened? Well, don’t fear brave people. Anti-Sherlock is here to dissect the secrets of the universe, and he has your answer. The first piece of the puzzle is that he’s allowed to play consistently. Mikel Arteta has always seen the Swiss as a crucial part of his plans for the team—since his sending-off against the Clarets, and subsequent suspension, he has not missed a single minute of Premier League action—and his more recent vein of form has been nothing short of stellar. Even if Xhaka has not been setting the world alight, as he did with his stunning free-kick on his return from the stands, he’s been among our most consistent players. And much of that comes down to his unique tactical role.
Based on the phases of play, he can sit deep in the left-back position, allowing our full-backs to get forward; he can play between the lines on the ball, regulating possession and spraying balls to the flanks, or split the lines to find Lacazette or Saka on the half-turn; he often presses high as a pseudo-Number 10, providing a vocal presence to regulate and focus the energies of our youthful attack. He’s as crucial to this team’s structure on the ball as he is off it. But then, you might wonder, where is the immobility? The panic under pressure? The heavy touches and desperate slide-tackles that result from his losing of possession? The incessant reliance on backwards passing? Well, the answer is that it’s still all there, just very cleverly hidden. However, to the Anti-Sherlock, nothing is truly concealed. He sees all. Xhaka’s immobility still bites him in the butt every once in a while, but Arteta has focused his energies on playing balls up the pitch. If you watch him closely in matches, Arsenal rarely play the ball to Xhaka with his back to goal. They prefer to cycle the ball around the back, instead of forcing it up the gut as Emery or Wenger would have done, committing men off the press until the space opens up for Xhaka to move progressively with the ball, usually due to a clever combination of passing on one of the touchlines between our wingers and full-backs.
And the aforementioned panic? It’s almost gone, because he’s not the last line of defence. As Rob touched on in his excellent piece recently, Thomas Partey is Xhaka’s security blanket. He has the speed, athleticism, and press-breaking ability that takes the onus off of Xhaka in that regard, which in turn gives the former Mönchengladbach man time and space to focus on his lovely passing range. The Anti-Sherlock would never refer to Xhaka as a passenger; rather, he is finally being played in a system that maximises his talents, and conceals his weaknesses. His recent run of form is no accident, concludes not-Holmes. He has learned, somewhat, to channel his natural aggression into positive form. The Anti-Sherlock wrote in November that Xhaka needed to start showing some aggression, and taking responsibility within the team, playing above and beyond his former self in order to prove himself a worthy starter. It’s fair to say he’s done that. I hope you have enjoyed this instalment of the Anti-Sherlock Holmes, and his misadventures in football analysis. Join us next week, or whenever he feels like writing again, for the Mystery of the Missing Winger.