Gunner Thoughts

Is the Writing on the Wall for Xhaka as a Starter?

Xhaka has been subbed out of the last three matches earlier than usual and is struggling since the season resumed. It has people asking if his time as a starter is coming to a close.

In the 79th minute at Villa Park the referee raised his board to denote an Arsenal substitution. Coming into the tense, 2-2 match to try and push Arsenal’s attack forward was Fabio Vieira, coming off was Granit Xhaka.

It was an unusual substitution. Not in that is didn’t make sense both tactically and from this individual match’s perspective, but because Granit Xhaka has long been a player that completes games.

He plays full-90’s. He is never injured, never misses a match, and as an unwritten rule, if he’s fit, he plays. He’s The Machine, The Marathon Man, The Terminator, and more. He is on his third Arsenal manager during his tenure and few players in Arsenal’s modern history have ridden such a tumultuous rollercoaster of fan opinions during a stint. Without rehashing the whole story and dredging up his acrimonious history, there’s many reasons to be surprised he still dons the red and white.

For years he has walked a line, often with one foot dipping onto both sides in any given week. It’s a line that divides those that believe he is one of Arsenal’s most important, influential figures, and those constantly believing this is the year and season that he must be replaced with an upgrade. But in the eyes of each manager, he has firmly stood as an embraced leader and frequenter in the starting lineup.

According to FBRef, in the last three Premier League seasons, there have only been 6 matches in which Xhaka has played more than 45 minutes, but less than 80 minutes. In three of those six, Arsenal have won by three or more goals.

Xhaka starts, Xhaka completes games. Which is why it’s even more surprising that Xhaka has been brought off before the 85th minute mark in three consecutive Premier League fixtures.

An obvious answer would be two of those matches were losses and Arsenal were in need of goals in all three, but, historically, that hasn’t meant Granit makes way. It’s lead many people to wonder, again, if THIS is the foreshadowing of Xhaka’s time as a starter ending.


In comparison to all the previous times — probably excluding the post-meltdown occasion — this one has the most credence to question. He’s 30 years old— 31 in May — with a contract that expires at the end of next season (June 2024). Which means this question probably has to be answered on two fronts: short term and long term.

Short term

This season has been its own roller coaster for Xhaka. Coming off a summer in which many were looking for the club to sign a more attacking player like Youri Tielemans to replace him, Granit demonstrated to everyone the attacking quality he can possess. As a part of a left side that was rampant and fluid, he looked like Swiss-National-Team-Granit as he was taking advantage of being the least-focused-on player amongst Gabriel Martinelli, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and a Gabriel Jesus that would float over to the left side.

As defenders looked to deal with Jesus’ movement, Martinelli’s central exchange, and Zinchenko’s technical ability, seams in the back were produced, pockets of space created, and Xhaka was timing his movement with devastating effect. He tallied 3 goals and 5 assists, but since returning from the World Cup, it’s been a different story.

Like every player on Arsenal’s left side, he’s struggled to recapture his pre-World Cup form. Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s become quite clear that Jesus’ absence has had an even larger ripple effect than we maybe predicted — and most people predicted it would be pretty large.

To complicate Xhaka’s involvement even further, Thomas Partey has been absent the last two matches which has tweaked the roles and responsibilities of him and Zinchenko a little bit further. Jorginho has put out two strong performances, but undeniably needs more defensive assistance and cover to make up for less mobility than Partey. This difference has seen Xhaka get into attacking positions in the final third with even less frequency than we were already seeing in January.

On Saturday we saw Arteta opt for Fabio Vieira late in the game, we know the return of Emile Smith Rowe imminent, and with Partey returning, Jorginho will be competing for minutes as well. Arteta has always stated he’s a coach that wants “more firepower”, but would he go for it at the cost of Xhaka’s two-way profile and familiarity with this system?

Ruling: The competition for that spot will heat up and it will be on Xhaka to fend off the advances of Vieira, Smith Rowe, and Jorginho. It’s hard to make an official ruling until Jesus returns and, ideally, the left side of Arsenal’s attack regains its bite, but I don’t believe Xhaka is in imminent danger of losing his starting position.

This season is really ramping up and the pressure this side faces now will pale in comparison to how things could feel in April and May. But Arteta’s willingness to sub Xhaka off in crucial matches likely means he knows that’s a position he can rotate and change to try and influence matches.

Xhaka’s leadership, experience, and versatile profile — in terms of ability to push forward or play very deep — is likely viewed as very important to this team. He’s a player Arteta trusts, he’s a commander when it comes to executing Arteta’s vision— and getting others to —and barring a barrage of attacking output from one of these others, it would take a lot to gazump the Swiss staple.

It’s a question that will be revisited in a few weeks when Jesus returns and Arteta is forced find the most optimal lineup to push this team across the finish line to claim the title, but Xhaka’s viewed as a player that brings too much to the show. What could change is the role he plays in Europa League matches as Emile Smith Rowe, Vieira, and Jorginho look for minutes to stay sharp.

Long Term

When it comes to the long term fate of Granit Xhaka, I do believe a bit more writing is on the wall. As I mentioned before, at almost 31, his age is starting to differ from where Arsenal’s project is at, and the need for injections of experience will lessen as the other players acquire their own. His contract is up at the end of next season which means Arsenal are right on the cusp of that decision making zone.

Xhaka doesn’t strike anyone as a player that would be content to sit on the bench and act the “aging veteran” trope, which means Arsenal’s decision may be a little more black and white: either he’s a starter in north London or he’s starting elsewhere.

As many fans look around the world for players that could be Xhaka’s replacement, many are striving to find a player that fits Xhaka’s profile, this is where my opinions differ. This current side has a need for Xhaka’s experience, but also a need for more stability and reliability than they have with Vieira or Smith Rowe. The answer has been Xhaka but I’m less certain that’s the ideal Arteta profile for that position’s future.

It seems far more likely to me that Arteta would dream of growing this team into it’s next phase by involving a left-eight player that is far more attack-minded than Xhaka, without the need for as many defensive responsibilities. It’s almost frustratingly cliche at this point to compare this team to Manchester City, where Arteta came from, but if we could tap into Mikel’s mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the mold of Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gündogan being more in line with his dreams.

In order to do this, Arsenal will start to adjust two positions in small ways. First will be finding a player, or growing one, that can offer more attacking quality, the versatile capability to exchange with Ødegaard and the left wing, as well as, the ability to help in earlier phases of build up and progression.

The second change will be a willingness to prioritize defensive qualities in whoever plays the holding midfield role. There will always be a need for them to have quality on the ball, Arsenal dominate possession to much to sacrifice that, but with the adaptation of inverted full-backs, a progressive left center-midfielder, and a more attacking front, having someone with the both qualities but a little extra defensive skill will win out. The name that tops that list: Declan Rice.

There are a few people convinced Rice is the Xhaka replacement, and while that might be a temporary, limbo state given Partey’s contract and some need to suss out Rice’s ability on the ball, it’s more likely that he would be purchased as a Partey replacement whose age aligns with this project entirely.

In fact, when it comes to it, Rice and Partey stack up very nicely for a clean swap and replace after taking into account the differences in Arsenal and West Ham’s match scripts and quality

With this in mind, I do think we are heading towards the end of Granit Xhaka’s time with Arsenal, and I think he knows it too. Everyone is locked in and focused on winning a title ahead of schedule, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it means a little extra to Xhaka who knows his opportunities to win it all with this talented side are limited. In fact, this could be his only shot to win a Premier League title with them. For a guy that came to Arsenal the year after they finished second, he maybe thought this opportunity would have already happened, but it’s here now and his to help make happen.

A year ago, Xhaka told the Players Tribune “I want to have a better relationship with the people outside, with the fans, to be closer with them. We never meet them, we never have a conversation with them.”

“I will give everything until I’m at this football club. I always say that. I didn’t sign a new contract only to be here for [the season], I enjoy my time and that’s it. No, no, I want to achieve something with this club, something special. And before that, I don’t leave.”

He’s had his ups and downs with the fans, things have been far from smooth sailing, but the redemption arc is there this season. To end on this note, if this is the end, would be a truly phenomenal way to break after seven seasons.

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