The misunderstood Swiss midfielder missed his first Premier League game since February 2017 on Wednesday and has improved this season
Granit Xhaka looks like a man enjoying his football right now. That may be a somewhat surprising sentence for many Arsenal fans to read after Xhaka’s error-laden performances last season, but a clear improvement has been made under the tutelage of Gunners head coach Unai Emery. The Swiss midfielder was suspended for the 2-2 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday and there were times when his presence was certainly missed on the pitch.
Xhaka has forged an excellent partnership with summer signing Lucas Torreira this season after Matteo Guendouzi had started the first few games alongside the Uruguayan. His progressive passing through the lines makes him a key cog between midfield and attack, while Torreira is able to do most of the defensive work by screening the back four.
There have still been lapses from Xhaka which have seen him receive criticism from many, particularly against Wolves where his error gave a goal away and he lost the ball on more occasions than any other player. The stat that Xhaka has now made more errors that have led directly to Premier League goals than any other player since his debut for the club two years ago is also a frustrating one, yet the improvement in the 23-year-old’s game is clear for all to see.
“You need to get the best out of the individual players in training and then implement that in the matches,” Emery has said.
“It’s more noticeable with some players because they have the capacity to do so, and perhaps because they’ve also found new impetus.
“The players that play the most are the ones that seem to have the most scope for development, but I’m convinced that they all have the ability to develop.
“In the case of Xhaka, I knew him before. The first thing was to find his best position and characteristics, but he also wants to improve and that’s the first step – that the players want it.”
That best position has certainly been found. Arsenal started without Xhaka for the first time in the league since February 2017 on Wednesday night. The run of 65 games with Xhaka at the core of everything in midfield shows why he is loved by coaches. A deep-lying player with a tendency to drive forward, creating space for himself and picking out team-mates.
He’s also a leader who was picked as one of Emery’s five captains this season. The contract extension which saw him commit to Arsenal until 2023 was another show of faith from the club in a player who has divided opinion since he first joined from Borussia Monchengladbach as the youngest ever captain of the Bundesliga side.
“It’s definitely my best season so far,” said Xhaka. “Without doubt, I think I’ve taken another step forward.
“It’s the best I’ve felt at Arsenal since I came to the club and the coach has had an enormous influence.
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“He prepares us all and we have a plan. We know how to do it with the ball and without the ball. We know how and when to stand where.”
Perhaps all Xhaka needed was more intuitive coaching and a grasp of what his true role in the Arsenal team is. The positives of Xhaka are his ability to control a game from midfield without many people noticing, while the downfalls have been much talked about and generally costly for a Gunners defence which leaked goals throughout last season.
Many critics, this writer included, have been proven wrong over Xhaka, a technically astute midfielder who has taken on the mantle of an Arsenal captain this campaign. With games against the likes of Huddersfield, Southampton and Burnley approaching, a further opportunity awaits for Xhaka to showcase his influential qualities at the centre of Arsenal’s midfield engine.