The Xhaka Conundrum – you can’t statistically define his leadership?
Going off of an important win against Sheffield United, Arteta and the Arsenal social media team, very rightly praised Granit Xhaka for his role in the match. Xhaka is a player that has a knack of dividing the fan base, he is the perfect example of a player that every coach wants to start but no one wants to buy in their selected football game.
While Xhaka is neither a physical or technical masterclass, he’s an almost undroppable asset at Arsenal – as the team seem to do much better when he’s in the lineup, than when he’s not.
Let’s do a nosedive into why this might be
To start off, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first.
Xhaka is, what is best described as a deep lying playmaker. With his 89.4% total passes complete, his passing stats are among some of the best for his position, being in the 90th percentile of central midfielders among the biggest five league in Europe. This is despite attempting 73 passes per game, higher than 89% of central midfielders, his passes are also progressive, making 6.59 progressive passes per game, ranking him, again, above 91% of players in his position.
When it comes to the defensive side of the game, Xhaka’s stats are very interesting. He manages 0.41 tackles in the final third, winning 39,5% of his tackles in general, again putting him above 80+% of central midfielders.
Lastly, we’ve all seen the stats showing that Xhaka has the most errors leading to goals of any outfield player in the Premier League since his arrival in 2016 (an estimated 1.6 per season). That being said, though, Xhaka is a very secure player to pass to. While being the target for passes in 61.77 times per 90, he very rarely miscontrols it, putting his 0.33 miscontrols per 90 above 95% of other midfield players. Furthermore, he’s also rarely dispossesed, meaning his 0.52 dispossesed per game, puts him above 86% of his competitors.
When you look at Xhaka statistically, what you end up with is a player that, is able to offer the team control of the game. He consistently shows for the ball, takes good care of it, distributes it nicely, and is able to retain possession when needed. In other words if you didn’t see a name attached to these stats, and you didn’t know who the player played for, you could argue that this is a player that Arsenal would need to sign to add stability in their midfield.
What doesn’t work
A player can’t be good at everything, and Xhaka is no different. He has areas of his game that, no doubt, is exploitable. He doesn’t tackle that often, meaning that, while his tackling for attacking third is high, his general tackling stats are very low. Nor does he press with good effect. With his 27.8% pressure success, he is only above 25% of his competitors – given Arteta’s focus on high pressure, the stats suggest he needs to position Xhaka in such a way that he doesn’t need to do a lot of pressure, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Additionally, he isn’t the fastest player on the pitch. This was extremely evident early on in his Arsenal career as he was often called to push higher up the pitch to try and help influence the game. The problem in that would inevitably be that he was so far forward that if Arsenal were caught in transition, he’d not be able to catch up if the ball were played through the midfield.
The other thing that’s been noticed is Xhaka isn’t very keen to take the ball on the half turn and this is a very limiting technical quality from someone who acts as a pivot in his midfield role. Receiving the ball from the keeper or centerbacks when under pressure requires someone with the ability to keep the speed of play going by receiving the ball in motion and quickly getting up field. That is done by the best midfielders through the half turn. It’s the simplest of moves, but as we saw on Sunday’s game from Partey, doing it right can freeze a defender and put the midfielder in a position to make a killer pass to set up a chance or a goal.
So what makes Xhaka undroppable?
“Yeah, he’s a natural leader,”
“He’s someone who is always 1,000 per cent committed, not just for himself but to help all his teammates all the time. I’m happy that you can hear him more now.”
In the wake of Granit Xhaka’s return to Arsenal after his falling out in the Emery era, Mikel Arteta spoke glowingly of the impact Xhaka brings to the team.
There are parts to a player’s game that cannot be coached. Those are intangibles. Commitment, mental toughness and leadership are just some of the qualities that can’t be coached into a player. You either have it or you don’t. Looking completely away from the stats and the technical deficiencies of Arsenal, its these qualities that are what make Granit Xhaka so indispensable to Arsenal.
First, even in the midst of the raging storm that ensued from his “clap off” issue under Emery, he never hid. Emery kept him off the field but he never hid. He owned his remarks and never shied away from validating his need for why he did what he did. He never apologized, nor should he have. Given the abuse the player suffered over the years on social media it was moment that came to head and frankly, Emery could’ve done more to protect the player but that wasn’t Emery’s way.
Fast forward to the Arteta era and he is once again showing why he is so influential. Whether people want to admit it or not, the leadership many were crying that had been missing since Vieira or Adams were here is the same kind of leadership Xhaka brings to the team. Stop, that is not saying he is the same make up of Vieira or Adams. It means he holds his teammates accountable on and off the pitch. He doesn’t let anyone off when mistakes are made.
In the 1-1 draw against Slavia Prague, a hot mic caught him yelling at the defenders saying something to the effect of “f**king kick the ball out” after Arsenal once again contrived to be the masters of their own demise.
This quality was probably one of the primary reasons he was signed. According to journalist Sven Goldmann of der Tagesspiegel when Arsenal signed the midfielder from Borussia Mönchengladbach:
Absolutely, he’s a born leader. He’s very young but he’s played with the Swiss team at the World Cup and has plenty of experience.
He’s taken on a lot of pressure, in public he always talks to the press and if you ask him a question he’ll give you a proper answer.
Xhaka’s a leader on the pitch and a leader off the pitch.
For years we’ve been lamenting the fact that we haven’t had a player on the pitch who musters the troops, holds his fellow players accountable and leads through effort. That describes Xhaka to a tee. A few days ago, video was circulated of Xhaka again on the open mic. The clips on social media were innocuous enough but when you see the full video (below) you can see a player who clearly understands the manager’s plan, articulates it on the pitch and is constantly and consistently acting as the field general the players need on the pitch.
In the 2019-2020 COVID-impacted season, Arsenal played 29 matches were 13W, 12D, 4L with Granit Xhaka. In those games, they managed 1.7 goals per game and conceded 1.1 goals per game. Their win rate was 44.8%, a loss rate of 13.8% (that includes the 3 manager changes as well as the pandemic impacted season) and averaged 1.8 points per game. Without Xhaka the Gunners played 9 and were 1W 2D 6L. They managed a meagre 0.8 goals per game. They saw their goals against rise to 1.9 per game, their points per game drop to 0.6 along with a win rate of 11.1% and a loss rate of 66.7%.
Yes, he is a player with technical deficiencies. All players have them. And yes, its quite possible there are upgrades to him available. The question is do they bring the same intangibles we discussed to their game. If they don’t is it really fixing the squad. What Granit Xhaka can bring to this team can’t be measured in the stats alone. There so much more to his value as a player than just what the stats say.