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Granit Xhaka is a conundrum for Unai Emery to solve at Arsenal
Xhaka's form has been criticised at times during his Arsenal career
Last Updated: 11/09/18 6:48pm
Granit Xhaka continues to split opinion among Arsenal fans. Should he keep his place in Unai Emery's starting line-up? Or do his weaknesses outweigh his strengths? We examine the statistics as he prepares to face England with Switzerland, live on Sky Sports on Tuesday.
It has been an eventful start to the season for Granit Xhaka. The midfielder was handed senior status at Arsenal when he was named as one of Unai Emery's five captains on the eve of the campaign, but four weeks on and his place in the team is up for debate.
There was a poor performance in the opening day defeat to Manchester City, when he was substituted after 70 minutes at the Emirates Stadium, and he did not even make it out for the second half against Chelsea a week later. Xhaka kept his place in the team against West Ham and Cardiff, but many supporters are wondering how much longer he will stay there.
The 25-year-old has attracted scrutiny throughout his time at Arsenal, but this season the presence of genuine alternatives in the squad has ramped it up. Teenager Matteo Guendouzi has earned rave reviews since his arrival from Lorient. Lucas Torreira, a £26m recruit from Sampdoria, is pushing for a starting spot following some eye-catching contributions from the bench.
The competition for places has intensified the debate and Xhaka's detractors are certainly not without ammunition. One of the biggest criticisms levelled against him is that he lacks speed and mobility, and it is backed up by the numbers. According to Arsenal's Premier League tracking data this season, he has averaged fewer high-intensity sprints per 90 minutes (4.4) than any other outfield player.
It is not an indictment of his work-rate - Xhaka actually ranks highly for distance covered - rather an indication that he struggles to reach the 25.2km/h threshold for what is now defined as a sprint. Xhaka has stamina but he is not naturally fast. By way of comparison, the tigerish Torreira has averaged 7.1 sprints per 90 minutes in his fleeting appearances so far.
Pace and acceleration are not traditionally seen as particularly important attributes for a central midfielder, but in the kind of high-intensity playing style favoured by Emery, they certainly help. Xhaka's physical limitations preclude him from N'Golo Kante-style ball recovery, and they can also leave him exposed against opposition runners.
It's part of the reason why he has made more fouls and received nearly twice as many bookings as any other Arsenal player since the start of last season, and the issue is exacerbated by what Arsene Wenger once described as a poor tackling technique. "He's not naturally a great tackler," he said. "I would encourage him not to tackle, to stay on his feet."
Emery hinted at the issue after the defeat to Chelsea, admitting it was simply too risky to keep Xhaka on the field following his first-half booking for a late challenge on Pedro. "It was a tactical substitution," he said. "We don't take risks with yellow cards."
The mistimed tackles are symptomatic of the fact that Xhaka is not a naturally defensively-minded player. In April, his half-hearted defending in Arsenal's 2-1 loss to Manchester United provoked an angry tirade from Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness. Last August, his reluctance to track back against Liverpool was labelled "absolutely disgraceful" by Gary Neville.
That defensive complacency is a problem for Arsenal but Xhaka's importance with the ball is such that he is difficult to leave out.
The Swiss international does not register particularly high numbers for assists or even chances created, but his intelligent passing provides an invaluable link between defence and attack. Xhaka has previously described himself as a "fake No 10". He is a creative player, in other words, who excels at picking out team-mates in advanced positions.
The statistics prove it. According to Opta, Xhaka has made more passes into the final third than any other outfield player in the Premier League since the start of last season. At Arsenal, nobody else even comes close to his total of 535, with Mesut Ozil second-highest on 236.
A midfield partnership of Guendouzi and Torreira would certainly provide greater defensive solidity, but would it provide the same penetrative passing? Arsenal certainly lost that when Xhaka was withdrawn against Chelsea. Overall this season, he is averaging more passes into the final third per 90 minutes (14.6) than Torreira (6.8) and Guendouzi (6.5) combined.
Xhaka's importance to Arsenal's build-up play tends to fly under the radar but a deeper look at the data underlines his influence further. Last season in the Premier League, the only players to be involved in more passing sequences which led to an open play shot on goal were Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen, Mohamed Salah and Eden Hazard.
It places him in esteemed company, but for Emery the questions remain: Is it enough to justify his place in the team? Can defensive discipline be drilled into him? Or is it time for Arsenal to readdress the balance in midfield? It's a conundrum which will not be straight-forward to solve.
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Watch England v Switzerland live on Sky Sports Main Event HD from 7pm on Tuesday