The journey of Granit Xhaka at Arsenal has been a complicated one full of twists and turns. However, he recently committed his future to the club both through a new contract and in an interview where he spoke of achieving something special with the team.
Mikel Arteta has changed Xhaka since his return from injury. The Arsenal midfield was struggling for consistency and penetration and the Spaniard made some tweaks which led to Xhaka and colleague Thomas Partey forming a brilliant partnership.
Xhaka was deployed in a slightly more advanced role than the double pivot pairing that he and Partey were used to. Martin Odegaard dropped deeper and Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 became a 4-3-3 with the Ghanaian now playing behind both Xhaka and Odegaard.
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This hybrid six-eight role that Xhaka was given meant his directness of passing has been crucial to how the team played. It was therefore unsurprising that when Partey fell away in the Palace game and was absent for the subsequent fixtures against Brighton and Southampton, Arsenal lost them.
However, the return of Mohamed Elneny to the side has brought the stability back to the midfield and Xhaka has resumed his strong performances. In fact, Arteta has been able to evidently channel Partey’s game through the Egyptian.
Against Leeds United, Xhaka reached a peak of his passing powers. Criticised at times for being too passive with his play, Arteta has extracted the best parts of the Switzerland international’s game and elevated them. Xhaka also attempted ten passes into the opposition box on Saturday. Four reached their target with one counting as a ‘key pass’, creating a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The last time Xhaka managed this number of passes into the box was against BATE in the Europa League last-32 in 2019. Additionally, he completed 90% of his passes into the final third against Leeds too.
Xhaka is no longer the midfielder that keeps the play ticking over. Which, in fairness, is an important part of a top midfielder’s game. But Xhaka now is a player who can be more dangerous and that has been achieved under a coach he cannot speak more highly about.
The North London Derby tomorrow (Thursday) is the peak of Arsenal’s season and victory would confirm a place for the Gunners in next season’s Champions League. Xhaka has already had an informal say on the match which highlighted his primal mindset that the Gunners will benefit from.
A video has circulated of Arsenal fans getting photos with Xhaka spotted out in the wild between matchdays. When asked what the fans could expect from Thursday’s derby he said, “We don’t speak, we do it.”
A brilliant simplicity to an answer that needed nothing more. Arsenal have one job, win the derby and bring home a place in next season’s Champions League to continue this club’s progression under Mikel Arteta.