Granit Xhaka – Arsenal’s master of midfield mediocrity

A collective moan echoes around the Emirates as Granit Xhaka gives away yet another needless foul inside Arsenal’s half. Bournemouth were going nowhere, but the midfielder seems intent to turn nothing into something. A disgruntled fan shouts: ‘You’re brainless Xhaka, utterly brainless’ – it’s hard to disagree.

The Swiss international has borne the brunt of fan frustration in recent years, but manager Unai Emery’s decision to appoint him club captain – following a vote amongst players – has sent many over the edge.

Perhaps nothing better sums up the club’s current plight than Xhaka taking over a role once held by such greats as Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira.

The fact that Emery felt it necessary to ask the players who should be captain in the first place would suggest he was not entirely sure who should be skipper on a permanent basis – a damning indictment of Arsenal’s lack of leadership within their current squad.

On the face of it, Xhaka has everything he needs to make himself a cult hero. He’s a tough, passionate midfielder who’s not scared to put a tackle in and will always stick up for his team-mates. But unfortunately, that only tells half the story.

Flattering to deceive

Arsenal have taken an early lead through David Luiz and look in good shape to move up to third in the table. Bournemouth have yet to enjoy so much as a genuine attempt at goal; surely not even their much-maligned midfielder can’t cost them this time?

Frustratingly, for the hosts that is, he just can’t seem to help himself.

Bournemouth winger Harry Wilson appears to be going nowhere, and the home side have plenty of men back, but Xhaka decides to lunge in on the edge of the centre-circle and bring down the on-loan Liverpool man.

If this was a one-off incident, Arsenal fans would have no problem, but they’ve seen far too many mistakes from the man they signed for £35m back in 2016. Thankfully, for his sake, the resulting free-kick is wasted by the visitors.

As if on cue, just minutes later, the skipper gifts Bournemouth another opportunity, bringing down Dominic Solanke this time with a lazy nudge into the striker. This foul also fails to cost the Gunners, but against better teams the midfielder’s poor challenges could and have cost them vital points.

Just a few games previous, Xhaka gifted Tottenham a penalty in the North London Derby which ultimately ended up costing his side all three points.

And while it may be a rather simplistic way of looking at it, Arsenal would be playing Champions League football right now if it wasn’t for his lazy challenge in the box towards the end of their final home game last season, which saw them drop two points against Brighton which would have put them in the top four.

Justified frustration

Another foul follows just before half-time. The groans that reverberate around the stadium convey a fanbase who have lost all patience with the man they once hoped would solve their midfield issues.

Compared to previous weeks, however, this reaction is tame. Against Aston Villa a few weeks prior, with Arsenal trailing 2-1, their then stand-in skipper was subjected to sarcastic cheering as his name was called to be substituted. Not all fans agreed with this response – one objecting: ‘You can’t boo your own players!’ This generated a rather comical shout of: ‘He’s s***!’ from another.

While that reaction may have been a tad overboard, there is no doubt the frustration from fans towards both the player himself and Emery, who continually picks him, is justified. On that day, fellow midfielders Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock entered the game and, coupled with Matteo Guendouzi, helped inspire the ten men of Arsenal to turn the match on its head and win 3-2.

The truth is that on this day, however, Bournemouth lacked the quality to really expose the hosts struggling centre-mid. While misplaced passes followed in the second half, the away side were unable to pounce on them and Arsenal held on for a much-needed three points.

Midfield conundrums

The question remains though – how do you solve a problem like Granit Xhaka? Since he has now been given the armband and is unjustifiably one of the first names on Emery’s team sheet, it seems unlikely he will be dropped anytime soon.

The decision to make him captain is hard to understand. Yes, it was a decision by the players, but Emery had been selecting him as captain every time he had been on the field since the beginning of the season and several times last campaign. His leadership qualities may not be the worst, but if he’s the best leader in this squad then it’s no wonder the Gunners find themselves in the position they are, a long way off challenging for major honours.

The simple fact is that Arsenal look a much better side without the Swiss international in it. He lacks the pace and skill many of his teammates possess and has made the most errors leading to goals of any outfield player in the Premier League since 2016.

Youngsters such as Willock and Guendouzi have flourished when given opportunities this season. Guendouzi has played so well he’s now virtually undroppable and was named the club’s player of the month for September, reflecting the young Frenchman’s excellent form. Uruguayan Torreira seems less fancied by Emery, but he has shown his quality numerous times since signing for the club last year.

Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal career seems unlikely to take off again under the current manager, but fellow attacking-midielder Dani Ceballos, on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, has had several exceptional performances this season, further complicating Arsenal’s midfield headache.

The amount of youth players brought through by Emery has certainly encouraged fans, but this encouragement is dampened slightly by the continued selection of several players such as Xhaka who have performed well below the levels required should the club wish to achieve anything this season.

Whilst most fans can see that the Gunners look a better team when their midfield consists of three young, energetic players, it seems Emery does not share that viewpoint. The manager makes multiple changes every week, clearly unsure of his best team, but Xhaka remains a constant, only missing for the occasional cup fixture

Perhaps the added responsibly of being named club captain on a permanent basis will bring with it a more sensible attitude on the pitch. Some fans may get taken in by the “pride” he expressed at being named captain, but it is his match performances which fans really care about.

Xhaka seems set to stay in Arsenal’s midfield for some time to come – fans can only hope he begins to show signs of improvement.

Feature image of Granit Xhaka courtesy of thesportreview via Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0