Arsenal’s impressive away win against Leicester was a day for some unlikely heroes. As Nicolas Pepe, Willian, and Alexandre Lacazette came into the team to inspire an unexpected victory, while a rejuvenated Granit Xhaka, playing every minute of every game, pulled the strings in midfield again.
“If you have to put an example on that pitch about character and about going for every single goal with that determination, then probably it’s him.” In the aftermath of Arsenal’s win at the King Power Stadium, Mikel Arteta was empathic in his praise of the Swiss midfielder. “He’s played more minutes than anybody else but he keeps going, even when he is so tired.”
In a game in which the Arsenal manager decided to rotate, following on from a gruelling run of fixtures that included a trip to Greece only three days before the game at Leicester, Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all rested.
Since Arsenal’s Boxing Day win against Chelsea, which kickstarted their upturn in form, the Gunners have played 16 games. Xhaka has completed 90 minutes in 15 of them. Some say the greatest ability for a footballer is availability.
His consistent presence in the heart of North London sides midfield is impressive, a player that has been immune from injury throughout his whole time at Arsenal. Now that reliable durability is being matched by performance.
The 28-year-old was excellent against Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes. Despite giving the ball away in the early stages of the game, a mistake that led to Leicester’s opening goal, his response to the error was exceptional.
For the remaining 85 minutes of the game, he dominated. Xhaka had the most touches and passes of any player on the pitch. He also topped the lists of tackles, duels won, and ball recoveries. He set the pace of his teams attacks after falling a goal behind, often forming the base of the offensive pressure Arsenal delivered as they searched for the equaliser.
Xhaka started the move that saw Pepe score the decisive third goal, and showed a maturity and experience in his game once his side were leading, drawing fouls and controlling the tempo of the game as the Gunners saw it out for the three points.
Granit Xhaka vs. Leicester:
Successful passes: 62
Pass completion: 87.3%
Duels won: 9
Ball recoveries: 6
Fouls won: 4
He's a machine. pic.twitter.com/ZvNYbuLk5H
— AFTV (@AFTVMedia) March 1, 2021
Xhaka’s return to form, which coincided with the team’s improved displays, has been driven by his renewed intent to play forward. After a run before Christmas in which he used the pass out wide to the full-back, or back to the central defenders too easily, he is now looking up the pitch for his first option when releasing the ball.
Arteta’s shift away from a back-three system has breathed new life into Xhaka, providing him with a No.10 playing in the pocket of space beyond the striker, to provide a forward passing option. After months of relying on Alexandre Lacazette coming deep as his central forward option, the movement and availability of Emile Smith Rowe in recent weeks means the former Arsenal captain is progressing play with more ease. Martin Odegaard has recently come into the side and offered a similar solution.
Partey’s return to first-team action has been another contributor to Xhaka’s growing influence. The Swiss midfielder has always had his limitations, an absence of pace and dynamism being the major downfalls. He lacks recovery ability and the physical capacity to carry the ball, but Partey’s arrival took a lot of midfield responsibility away from Xhaka, allowing him to focus on what he does best.
In the former skippers best games this season, opposition midfielders are focusing their press towards Partey and Xhaka is finding more space and getting more time to pick his forward passes.
In Sunday’s game against Leicester, even without Partey alongside him, Xhaka is playing a simpler game. Maybe just the presence of £45 million signing in the squad, and the understanding that there is now a new midfield general that takes charge, has relieved Xhaka of a lot of pressure, discouraging his tendency to complicate things and try to do too much to impact games.
Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery, and Mikel Arteta have all stood by the much-maligned midfielder throughout his time at the Emirates, and continued to play him consistently despite personal adversities.
Three different managers, all with different experiences and styles, have trusted the same man in their midfield, despite fan’s feelings often opposing the decision. His leadership qualities, and impact inside the dressing room, is regularly noted as influential, and in an Arsenal side that has been often too reliant on youngsters this season, he is an experienced head that is stepping up as the Gunners look to salvage something from the campaign.
Next up for Arsenal is Burnley. The last time they faced Sean Dyche’s side was a low moment in the club’s history, as the team suffered their fourth straight league loss at home for the first time in 61 years.
In that game, they were significantly hindered by the red card shown to an ill-disciplined Xhaka who grabbed the neck of Ashely Westwood just when Arsenal needed cool heads the most. However, whenever his career in red and white looks over, he has a special habit to keep coming back.
The visit to Turf Moor on Saturday is a nice signal that another redemption is complete, with Xhaka certain to start as one of the in-form key players in Arteta’s resurgent side. With a hard-wearing engine, an eye for a pass, and a never-say-die mindset, Granit Xhaka can’t be kept out of this Arsenal side.