If you were to drop a stone into the centre of a lake, the ripples obviously would permeate outwards from the original impact of the drop. So what happens when instead of disturbing the balance of nature with a stone… you drop Granit?
In English football, everyone either loves you or hates you with a passion. Arsène Wenger should know, and so should his midfield centre-piece and Scrabble point-banker, Granit Xhaka. It’s seemed that since walking a familiar path from the Bundesliga to the Premier League, what should have been a low-key upgrade has become a fiery topic of debate; Pierre Højberg, Kevin Wimmer, and Sead “like tackling a fridge” Kolašinać never sparked such interest from fans. Even Xhaka’s positional contemporaries, such as Nemanja Matić or Danny Drinkwater, are supposed to be the least talked about men in a side.
The truly remarkable thing about Xhaka though is that for what is quite an understated role in a football team, everything he does is either fantastic, or a hilarious omnishambles. There’s no in between. Everything is magnified, because he drifts to the spotlight.
Midfielders in Europe measured by goals/key passes (X axis), tackles/interceptions (Y axis) and possession score (dot size). pic.twitter.com/Yayw8LZUQH
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) March 15, 2017
A cross looks-wise between an Eastenders heart-throb and a guy who’d do you a cracking deal on a second-hand soundsystem, Granit is as chiseled and polished as his namesake, and he’s often a head-turner for a host of reasons. Off the pitch, he introduced himself with a bizarre motivational quote about how his mother trusted him with the house keys over his elder brother Taulant; on the pitch he backed up the bullshit early on with two spectacular 30-yarders home and away. He was sent off twice last season, for cack-minded assaults in wide areas, hilariously, both times by Jon Moss, to which he smiled, twice, as if “Why always me?” He scored a vital goal against Manchester United, and was involved in a particularly weird racial incident at Heathrow airport in the same season. He’s part meme, part midfielder; sort of stylish, but undeniably backed with substance.
Take the season opener of the Community Shield at Wembley. Xhaka’s looping clearance led to Chelsea’s goal, yet the regista picked up the man of the match with a performance as elegant as any of Xabi Alonso’s. He made two assists against Leicester, before gifting Stoke the winner in the following match with a misplaced pass.
The answer to the aforementioned question is this. By dropping Granit Xhaka into the weird, social media-injected circus that is Arsenal FC, the Swiss international has gravitated to the centre of everything. He’s as close as Arsenal have to a leader some days, he’s often the scapegoat for defensive errors, and he patrols the centre circle with both the majesty and limited speed of an elderly lion. For all the affection Wenger showers Özil with, the move to a 3-4-3 was brought in to build the team around Xhaka, similarly to how it did when the midfielder played alongside Mo Dahoud at Borussia Monchengladbach. He’s the epicentre of this Arsenal team.
And for good reason. Arsène Wenger tweaks his footballing philosophy about as often as Tottenham finish above him in the table; to switch to a more defensive formation, all for a player many thought was bought by the board, is unprecedented at the Emirates. But Arsenal’s number 29 is what makes Arsenal’s 3-4-3 different from Chelsea’s or Tottenham’s.
Wenger switched to a 3-4-3 for a very simple reason. Arsenal were being caught out at the back, largely on the counter; while Conte instilled automatisms to help control the exact positions of his defenders, Wenger isn’t nearly so meticulous. He just wanted another man in defence. It suits Xhaka because his midfield partner would often abandon him in a 4-2-3-1 to roam further upfield; see Ramsey’s late-box dashes or Francis Coquelin, who has the positioning of an escaped owl in a small bedroom.
In Conte’s version of the 3-4-3, the emphasis to build play is on libero-like David Luiz, Azpilicueta (who made more passes in the first half of last season than any other player), and the full-backs, who play inside-to-outside one-twos with the central players to advance play forward. In Wenger’s version of the 3-4-3, much of the emphasis to build play is still with Xhaka. Along with the superb press resistance he showed in the Bundesliga, Xhaka is improving using his weaker right foot, making him more of a traditional regista at Arsenal. The defensive-minded, box-to-box midfield core at Chelsea is personified dynamism and brute force. The midfield pivot at Arsenal is based on the finesse of Xhaka and the tireless energy of Aaron Ramsey, joining in the attack when needed.
The Gunners have lacked a figure dictating play ever since Santi Cazorla first got injured. Before that, it was Mikel Arteta deep, who brought out Ramsey’s best years. Xhaka is everything that Arsenal fans should appreciate in a midfielder: an eye for a pass like Fàbregas had, the ability to play out like Emmanuel Petit, and the fearless command of Patrick Vieira. It’s ironic that Xhaka has come under quite as much criticism as he has, considering Arsenal have needed a player of his type for over a decade. A lot of the time when Xhaka comes under pressure, it’s the system that’s to mostly to blame; it’s like solely blaming a dictator for fascism when it’s the society that elects them.
It’s obvious why everyone focuses on Xhaka. Wenger cemented his footballing philosophy with midfielders, assembling graceful passers at Arsenal to bring a brand of football to England that we’d never seen; and since that night in Paris, 2006, it’s been the backbone of the criticism for the club. With Xhaka often left in the middle of the park alone when Arsenal push men forward, it’s no wonder that onlookers notice the one, in a 3-1-6 formation.
It’s also perhaps typical Wenger that when fans were calling for a defensive workhorse in the form of N’Golo Kanté, he went for a slightly clumsy, Bundesliga buy with a cocky smile like Jack Wilshere and a left peg to match. Xhaka is far more graceful in possession than your average DM. He’s positionally aware, and six clear cut chances created in the first two games of the season suggest that his link-up with the likes of Özil and Lacazette will be as key as his relationship with Koscielny and Mustafi this season.
Whatever he does though, expect Xhaka to hog the limelight. Expect his performances, his social media game, even his post-match interviews to be either fantastic or hilarious; expect it to be blown out of all proportion too, whatever he does, good or bad. He’s just that kind of guy. There’s a thin line between genius and insanity, and Granit Xhaka is teetering on it right now.