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Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal’s New Swiss Army Midfielder?

He defends, he progresses, and he’s attacking better than we have ever seen him attack before. The Gunners’ new Swiss Army Midfielder?

Coming into the season, many will have made predictions about who within this Arsenal team could be candidates for “Most Improved Player”, but almost none of them will have contained the name Granit Xhaka. And yet, just seven matches into the Premier League season, it would be hard to argue it’s not the Swiss international leading the category, despite being the oldest player in Arsenal’s regular, starting lineup.

Granit came to Arsenal in the 2016/17 season and it would be fair to say has split fan opinions during his tenure. Fairly or not, he built himself a name for always being on the brink of a rash challenge and during Arsenal’s most difficult times, he certainly became a face of Arsenal stagnation. He felt like an old, dusty fixture of a club in desperate need of modernization and upgrades. Without rehashing it all, every frustration built up then boiled over between him and the fans on that infamous day against Crystal Palace.

Arteta came in, convinced him to stay, and still Xhaka split opinions — even without wearing the armband. As Arsenal’s project struggled to lay its foundations, he still stood as a face that people equated with antiquation and an inept midfield core. Even as of this summer, he was figure that many wanted to see sold or upgraded. Arsenal were in need of a left center midfielder that could help supply attacking opportunities to a side looking to find fifteen more goals at least; something that Arsenal fans had seen very little of from Granit Xhaka the previous three to five years.

In fact, Xhaka has only eclipsed four goal contributions in two seasons domestically across his entire career — 2017/18 and 2018/19. This year, within seven games, Xhaka has matched the four goal contribution mark with 1 goal and 3 assists, meaning he’s already been directly involved in more goals than 10 of his 12 seasons — and much of it has to do with the evolution of his role.

All action, all the time

What we began to be seen more frequently in the second half of Arsenal’s 2021/22 season has seemingly taken the next step forward this season. An iteration of Arteta’s attacking system and a step forward in his usage of a more attacking, left central midfielder. Yet this iteration has not been a switch to an outright attacking midfielder following the mold of, say, İlkay Gündoğan. No, Arsenal have taken the next step forward by given Xhaka the comfort and freedom to move into areas around the pitch he is most comfortable occupying.

Xhaka 2022/23 Season Heat Map; Source: SofaScore

It’s still early in the season, so this heat map wont look at “hot” as one we look at later, but you can see three distinct areas of occupation: a deeper defensive left half space; a wide left area closer to the touchline, often associated with left backs; and a more attacking presence in the final third and even in the box. To really notice the advancement, let’s consider his heat role in the 2020/21 season.

When Arteta came into the coaching job, Arsenal were a side that was shipping goals regularly. The immediate cure? A double-pivot midfield that diligently sat in front of the leaky backline.

Xhaka 2020/21 Season Heat Map; Source: SofaScore

It’s quite obvious to see the spaces Xhaka took up: diligently partnering his midfield, pivot partner centrally and drifting wide left to help with progression and support of Arsenal’s overlapping left back. What stands out most clearly is the hardline stop around 35 yards from goal, and wasn’t that an obvious pain point in previous season’s midfield presence? While Arsenal still shifted into a 2-3-5 attacking shape, it was the left back getting involved wide, not an extra midfielder that could create more intricately or fluidly.

This season, we are seeing Granit Xhaka get into the box and make a huge difference. The left back still has the ability to get involved — Zinchenko more centrally and Tierney still getting down the line respectably — but if they enter the areas around the box that often means Arsenal are closer to a 2-2-6 attacking shape. The presence of the extra body has created overloads, it’s presented easy opportunities to have numbers up situations that make defending tough on opposition, and when Arsenal lose the ball there is often a body nearby to initiate the counter press that has created far greater stretches of sustained pressure.

The final reason this system has worked so well for Granit? Xhaka’s positioning is still based on roles and positions he is comfortable playing within. He still drops deep to help get Arsenal out of their own area and assist defensively; he still drifts wide left to find space to get on the ball and progress up the pitch; and his role in the attacking third reminds me a lot of his role with the Swiss national team in which he is expected to be the “all action, all the time” midfielder that creates goals. The freedom Partey and Arsenal’s stout backline now offer him has seemingly transformed him into Arsenal’s very own Swiss Army midfielder. He defends, he progress, he attacks, and he makes plays as a commander on the pitch.

Stats to back up the success

Theories and tactical visions on paper really are only as good as how they translate onto the field with results. While it might be easy to say Xhaka should have been playing this way all along, the reality is, that’s easier said than done. It’s taken a complete overhaul of the backline and growth in Thomas Partey’s ability and comfort to play as a lone holding midfielder to push Xhaka further up the pitch. Unsurprisingly, everything in this sport is fluid, and if you lack the specificity and profiles to play this way, you simply cannot without opening yourselves to a serious weak-link in the setup.

Arsenal have already gotten a taste of that this year. When Partey was absent and replaced by Elneny and then Lokonga, as acceptable as they played, it did see a slight alteration in Xhaka’s ability to get forward freely. He was far more attached to his midfield partner and far less integrated within the attack. I think it’s fair to say that Aston Villa and Manchester United were two of his less stellar matches in a relatively outstanding start to the campaign.

But what Xhaka stats support this system as effective, beyond four goal contributions?

  • Most live passes from an Arsenal midfielder (356) in the Premier League, only surpassed by Arsenal defenders
  • Third most Shot Creating Actions on the team (26) behind Martinelli (29) and Jesus (28)
    • Small Caveat: He has the most Shot Creating Actions from live-ball passes on Arsenal (23)
    • The second most Goal Creating Actions (3) behind Saka’s 5
  • Most Touches of an Arsenal midfielder, but this has much to do with him playing more minutes than Thomas Partey who out touches him per 90 by 12.5 touches
    • Xhaka is still producing a good 62.6 touches of the ball per 90 minutes.

Possibly most important, beyond the impressive Shot Creating Actions and goal contributions is what Xhaka has always offers, and continues to offer, in progressive passing.

  • Xhaka has the most progressive passing distance of anyone in the midfield with 1388 yards.
    • Similar to stats like touches, his per 90 stats have taken a hit in this realm, but when couple with the uptick in attacking presence that suggest he is taking up more advanced positions, it’s hard to be too upset about.

It’s hard not to be excited about this new version of Granit Xhaka. I mean, it’s nearly impossible not to be excited about the level of play we are seeing from this Arsenal side — one that remains the youngest in the Premier League — and Xhaka has been a remarkable factor in that excitement.

He creates shots and goals, he progresses the ball, he cuts out transitions, he makes his cynical fouls — like it or not — he continues to build his chemistry with two different left back molds, and possibly most important, he remains healthy and available.

It’s fair to wonder what the future holds for Granit and Arsenal’s relationship. After all, if Arteta is slowly navigating this ship down the Manchester City canal, it would make sense to see the attempt to deploy a midfield with two strong, creative attacking midfielders. Perhaps it is a matter of time before lesser sides — with all do respect — start to face an Arsenal midfield made up of Partey, Ødegaard, and Vieira in place of Xhaka. If that were to be the case and Granit were to have his time reduced, how would he react as a player that is accustomed to playing in every match, cups and Europa League included?

It’s a difficult situation to forecast for many reasons, none more difficult than believing there is another midfielder as capable as him at playing the all-action role he seems to have carved out for himself. So, in the meantime, sit back and enjoy the new Granit Xhaka — Arsenal’s Swiss Army midfielder.

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