“Last year was a transition year, but now he’s ready to dominate the Premier League.” That point of view has been heard a lot this summer, usually referring to Paul Pogba, but it could just as equally apply to Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international had a tough first year in England following last summer’s £35m move from Borussia Mönchengladbach to Arsenal, failing to properly make his mark on matches, other than in leaving stud marks on his opposition to the tune of two red cards and 12 bookings. Now, though, there are signs that this is to be his year.
Towards the end of the 2016/17 season there were already some glimpses of the talent that encouraged the Gunners to make the midfielder their then-third-most-expensive signing ever and he further demonstrated his potential with a Man of the Match performance in last Sunday’s Community Shield victory over Chelsea. Some players find playing at Wembley a daunting prospect, but not Xhaka, who performed excellently on that hallowed turf in last year’s FA Cup semi-finals and final against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively and who raised his game even further against Antonio Conte’s men last weekend.
While he assisted the equaliser and almost scored a goal himself, but for a fine Thibaut Courtois save, the most impressive aspect of the 24-year-old’s Community Shield display was the way he joyfully and effectively kept the ball moving and, therefore, the way he kept yanking Chelsea this way, that way and over the Irish sea. He finished the match with a 90 percent passing accuracy, which was all the more commendable given some of the difficult passes he played – not to mention the way referee Bobby Madley kept maddeningly getting in his way.
With Arsene Wenger needing a new deep-lying playmaker to replace Santi Cazorla, he’ll have been incredibly pleased to see Xhaka take responsibility in receiving the ball from Petr Čech or from a member the back three as a pivot, before launching the play. Given the team’s new formation and the fact that there is now an extra defender sitting behind him, there is less onus on Xhaka to win back possession, something Wenger urged him to do less at the mid-way point of the 2016/17 campaign after criticising his scissor-style technique. Against Chelsea he did not commit a single foul, partly because he has improved the way he tackles and partly because he does less of it. By the manager and the player both accepting that the Swiss international is not going to be Arsenal’s new agricultural tough-tackling midfielder, à la Patrick Vieira or Gilberto Silva, Xhaka is now being tasked with doing what he does best: passing. He now focusses on rolling the ball around the pitch, as evidenced by the fact that his average passes-per-game statistics increased from 61 to 81 from the first to second half of last season.
Of course, there is still plenty that Xhaka can do better. If, for example, he can become less dependent on his left foot then his passing range will increase even further. But if the former Swiss Youth Player of the Year can keep improving at the same rate he has been over the past six months, then the sky really is the limit. Given all of the above and given that he should benefit from more balance in midfield when Aaron Ramsey returns to the lineup, Arsenal fans should be excited to see what Xhaka can do in 2017/18. The rest of the Premier League, meanwhile, should be worried.