The Self Inflicted Regression of Granit Xhaka

Granit Xhaka joined Arsenal in the summer of 2016 for a £30 million fee from Germany’s Borussia Moenchengladbach, where he bossed their midfield for four years. Arsene Wenger splashed the cash on Switzerland’s star man hoping that he would become Patrick Vieira’s heir, which Arsenal never got after the Frenchman left. So far, Xhaka has not come close to those high expectations.

Arsenal fans expected Granit Xhaka to fix all their problems in the center of the park when he arrived in England. For so long, the Gunners lacked a physical presence, and German football fans regarded Xhaka as too physical at points. It looked as though Arsene Wenger had taken a page out of Chelsea’s book: the Blues won the Premier League in 2014 by eight points with Nemanja Matic holding down their midfield, so Wenger thought Xhaka could play that role his team.

In the year-and-a-half since the ex-Moenchengladbach captain joined the club, he has thoroughly disappointed English football enthusiasts. Any casual fan can point out his weaknesses: he has no work ethic, horrible body language, and a short fuse. He only uses his left foot and runs as though he dips his legs in molasses before every game.

A combination of attacking-minded midfielders Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Aaron Ramsey, and Jack Wilshere play alongside Xhaka in the middle. That makes the 57-time Swiss international the last man ahead of the back line, so he has extra work to do in order to disrupt oncoming attacks. Instead of working hard to try and thwart opponents, the Basel native tends to look indifferent and refuses to chase defenders and pressure them to make mistakes.

Granit Xhaka joined Arsenal in the summer of 2016 for a £30 million fee from Germany's Borussia Moenchengladbach, where he bossed their midfield for four years. Arsene Wenger splashed the cash on Switzerland's star man hoping that he would become Patrick Vieira's heir, which Arsenal never got after the Frenchman left. So far, Xhaka has not come close to those high expectations.
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 11: Granit Xhaka of Arsenal gestures to his team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on August 11, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Xhaka has proven his ability to surprise defenses by slamming a shot into the back of the net from outside of the 18-yard box. One of his few good moments of the season came against Liverpool. It was a long-range cracker from around 30 yards that Simon Mignolet probably could have stopped, but it was a wonderful strike nonetheless. It was a pivotal goal to spur Arsenal on to come back from a 3-0 deficit to draw 3-3 with the Reds.

That was the sort of game that should inject newfound belief into a team, but Xhaka never seemed to improve his attitude after he had such a great offensive impact on the game. His body language reminds spectators of Mesut Ozil’s, but the World Cup winner’s performances and effort exceed what his body language generally indicates. In addition to lack of sheer effort, the 25-year-old slows down the game whenever the ball finds his feet. He only uses his left foot, which is another trait he shares with Ozil, but Xhaka is not nimble enough to dance around defenders and free up his stronger leg like the German does.

The Switzerland international is just another Arsenal player who is more concerned with taking selfies than actually playing football. He has not displayed his aggressive reputation in recent weeks, and Arsenal have needed an intimidating presence in midfield for years. So far, Xhaka has not filled that role, and his statistics reflect that.

Statistical Analysis

Granit Xhaka’s defensive stats further prove how awful he has been for the Gunners this season. In the Premier League, he makes just 1.7 tackles per game. Cesc Fabregas, Jordan Henderson, Jordan Ayew, and Richarlison are some of the players who make more tackles per game than the 25-year-old. Arsene Wenger brought in the eight-time goalscorer for the Swiss national team to play the same role that Nemanja Matic played for Chelsea in their title-winning season. Clearly, Arsenal were late to the party. Teams adjusted and learned how to work around bigger, slower defensive midfielders like Matic and Xhaka, and now, smaller, quicker engines like N’Golo Kante and Idrissa Gana Gueye are the most successful players in that role.

Take a look here, at two screenshots taken just before Sam Clucas scored for Swansea in their 3-1 win against the Gunners on January 30th:

Xhaka might have taken three steps while between the time the midfielder sent in the pass to the time Clucas shot the ball. A player with any semblance of a defensive mind would have kept his eye on Clucas and at least got into a position to disrupt his shot. Xhaka just looked apathetic. It’s simply unacceptable for a £30 million signing to defend like that, especially against a team sitting near the bottom of the league table.

Another incriminating statistic is his lack of clearances per game: he makes just 1.4 per game. Sure, it’s more of a center back’s job to clear the ball, but in his deep-lying role, Xhaka needs to do better to get the ball out of his team’s area. There are more surprising players who clear the ball more each game than the Arsenal midfielder: Mame Biram Diouf, Davy Propper, and Andrew Surman all clear the ball more than the defensive midfielder.

Xhaka fouls opponents nearly as much as he tackles and intercepts successfully. He fouls 1.6 times per game, enough to be tied for 11th-most in the Premier League. He makes the 77th-most tackles in the league and the 115th-most interceptions per game with just 1.1. Statistically speaking, there’s a 50% chance that he will commit a foul whenever he makes a challenge.

Offensively, he plays almost as poorly as he does when he tracks back. He boasts a solid 86% pass success rate, good for 42nd in the league, but he rarely takes risks with passes and does not tend to cut a defense in half to create a chance for his teammates. Furthermore, Jack Wilshere, a much more attack-minded player and more frequent risk-taker, completes almost the same percentage of his passes at 85.9%. Wilshere constantly charges forward with the ball and keeps the defense on its toes while Xhaka sits back and never makes dynamic movements with the ball.

The ill-disciplined anchor plays the third-highest amount of long balls per game among outfield players with 5.1 on average. He also makes 82.7 passes per game, the third-most in the league. He only makes a single key pass per game, though, and even though he’s a deep-lying midfielder who sits just ahead of the back line, his strengths lay on offense, if one can even refer to his mediocre attacking statistics as his strengths. N’Golo Kante, Tom Cleverley, and Yohan Cabaye all play more key balls per game than the former ‘Gladbach captain.

He nets a world-class goal on occasion, but it’s still unclear what Granit Xhaka does well on the pitch. If Arsenal want to bounce back from this season’s and last season’s disappointments, they need to upgrade in the middle of the park this summer. Xhaka has not played consistently well since he joined the club, and he’s in ghastly form at the moment. At 25-years-old, he still has plenty of time to right the ship, but he needs to do so fast if he wants to keep his place in the Arsenal XI.

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