Well, nothing has me off to a flyer in the morning quite like a riveting read on the pros and cons of Xhaka courtesy of the folk over at Sky Sports. This article gets to the core of why he’s a marmite player, but in an interesting way that uses numbers with right level of context.
The long and short is this… he’s one of the most effective players in the league moving the ball into the final 3rd, but he’s also statistically one of the slowest players in the team.
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.
It’s interesting that he’s being compared to Torreira, who hasn’t played a full 90minutes for Arsenal as of yet. For me, the lack of mobility in a central position is an absolutely huge problem in the Premier League. It was a problem when he was playing under Wenger and we went from a Champions League team to a Europa one. It will be a problem under Emery, because he’s a manager that insists on high intensity. Not just that, it’s a problem for a league that prides itself on power and pace. You can get under the skin of Xhaka and he can be bullied.
The attacking numbers are obviously promising, he’s in esteemed company for sequences that lead to a shot, and he’s smashing the competition for the amount of balls into the final third… but this kind of reminds me a little bit of the Ozil challenge. Football is not like NFL. It’s difficult to survive this league being a specialist if there are gross weaknesses elsewhere in your game. If all you can offer up is passes into the final third, you are a weakness that will need someone else to pick up the pieces. When you have a squad as imbalances as ours, that starts to become a problem.
We need someone to do the defensive duties of Mesut, who won’t track
We need someone to pick up the legs of Xhaka who can be overrun
We need someone who can hold up the ball to play next to Auba
We need someone with pace to sit next to Laca
The list goes on. Arsenal can’t afford to be a team that needs players doing other things for players who are grossly under-equipped to do the basics. So that means the manager has to start making sacrifices.
For me, with a defence like ours, solidity in the midfield is an absolute must. Guendouzi and LT would make for a very interesting pairing, and if it isn’t those two, then I’d have Aaron Ramsey playing next to Torriera. The Welshman has a good range of passing, and he also boasts the ability to break the lines with quick bursts of pace. That’s another thing you have to remember, just because Xhaka can play long range balls into space, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way for Arsenal to attack.
This specialism that Xhaka possesses has taken us from 4th to 6th and 5th. On the face of it, having the best pre-assist king in the league doesn’t seem to be doing us many favours.
You could counter that and say that’s someone else’s fault, but the people doing that have been telling us that Ozil is the most deadly creator that ever lived. Then you could blame our attackers, but we have Auba and Lacazette who are two of the most deadly finishers in Europe.
It could also be argued that if one player is doing such an incredible number on stats, it’s because too much of the play is being threaded through them, which yet again shows an imbalance of the squad. When you have so much of the play rolling through one name, it makes you very easy to plan against. Just take out Xhaka, and you stem the flow of play into the final third. Again, not a great look.
It’s also interesting that this statistic of playing the most balls into the final third has dropped out of nowhere and we’re all assuming it’s the thing, some saying it’s so important it’s fine if it costs you goals. There are plenty of types of centre midfielders you can have who can do an effective job. Look at Keita at Liverpool, power, speed, tackling, passing, shooting, he’s Roy of the Rovers. Look at Santi before Xhaka, short passes galore and a connective tissue type role, he made the pitch smaller and could cover ground despite his small frame. Look at Paul Pogba and what he tries to do for United. All of those names are more well rounded than Xhaka who has one string to his bow and that’s pre-assisting, which is helpful, but I find it perplexing anyone can look at that one skill and say it’s strong enough not to worry about pace, tackling and all-round mobility.
Anyway, you see what I mean. We need to start making sacrifices, and in my view, it should be making sacrifices so we can be more solid through the middle. Build from the back, then work out how to be more efficient moving forward.
Let me know what YOU think in the comments.