As much as Arsenal’s crushing victory in St Jakob Park this week was a squad effort, it was a personal triumph for former FC Basel player, Granit Xhaka. Returning to a former stomping ground and winning emphatically is always welcomed by players but for Xhaka there was the added spice of beating his brother.
And the performance was the latest which underlined his importance to the Arsenal XI.
Signed in the summer for £35m from Borussia Monchengladbach, it’s been a regular source of bemusement to many Arsenal supporters that the Swiss international has not been a regular member of the starting line-up.
Arsène Wenger recently suggested that Xhaka had yet to fully adapt to the English game. With sporadic outings, that was hardly surprising. Xhaka was introduced as a substitute for fellow former Basel player Mohammed Elneny during the opening day defeat to Liverpool.
His first start came in the draw at defending champions Leicester City six days later. Retaining his place against Watford and starring during the 3 – 1 win, it was assumed that the Albanian-born midfielder had carved his niche in the Arsenal side.
The assumption was wrong. Wenger rotated him in and out of the side for Premier League, Champions League and EFL Cup matches. The frequent chopping changes to the midfield and not playing with the same partner week in, week out, impacted on Xhaka’s form.
Moments of brilliance – goals at Hull City, Nottingham Forest and Ludogorets Razgrad – were interspersed with some average performances. The sizeable fee seemed to be weighing heavily on his shoulders; frequent substitutions on or around the hour mark became a regular feature of his season.
The tipping point came in the home match against Swansea City. Xhaka was visibly struggling with the pace of the game and with Arsenal just holding onto their lead, the Swiss international found himself exposed close to the halfway line.
Modou Barrow, on the verge of a dangerous counter-attack, was halted with a professional foul. Controversially, Xhaka received a red card; former referee Mark Halsey criticised the decision and whilst Wenger publicly defended the midfielder, his patience appeared to be wearing thin.
Having appeared in the north London derby, Xhaka found himself relegated to the bench for the vital Premier League clash at Old Trafford.
Wenger did Xhaka a favour. Arsenal’s approach that day was conservative; they were ponderous in possession and despite his errant behaviour, Xhaka moves the ball quickly, turning defence into attack with a fine range of passing. In Santi Cazorla’s absence, that variety has been sorely missed.
The French coach was using every possible combination available to him. Francis Coquelin partnered Xhaka, Elneny and Aaron Ramsey. The former Basel pair found themselves on the pitch together whilst Ramsey continued to be Wenger’s square peg forced into a round hole.
However, it began coming together for Xhaka and against Bournemouth, West Ham United and FC Basel, he was imperious. Arsenal struggled to assert their authority against the Cherries at the Emirates but still won 3 – 1; the other two games, both away from home, saw them swat aside their opponents.
Neither Basel nor West Ham could contain the crisp counter-attacks with Xhaka at the heart of everything; recycling possession quick and efficiently earned him rave reviews from the Gunners faithful.
It’s no coincidence that Xhaka hasn’t earned himself a yellow card since the final minute at Old Trafford. Not walking a disciplinary tightrope has freed his mind from caution while Wenger’s decision to pair his protégé with Francis Coquelin has provided a platform for Xhaka to express himself.
The French player is one of the Premier League’s more combative defensive midfielders but a highly efficient one. It relieves Xhaka of the need to sit in front of the back four and rein in his instincts. He and Coquelin have picked their moments to alternate in pushing forward to support the Arsenal attack.
It’s no coincidence the pair forming a fulcrum has seen Arsenal’s performances improve. There is a confidence in the forward line. Safe in the knowledge that opposition counter-attacks are being monitored, they are more expressive now and the goals are flying in.
Crucially, Xhaka is playing with a smile on his face. He seems more settled on the pitch and missing three matches through suspension was a shock, even for a midfielder used to frequenting the committee rooms of the DFB’s disciplinary department.
Arsenal supporters are quick to recognise his growing importance. With Aaron Ramsey sitting in the deeper, the Welshman finds himself and fans frustrated by his inability to spark attacks.
There’s a simple reason why: it isn’t using Ramsey in the best position for his game. His successful Euro 2016 came as he was played further forward but that won’t happen at Arsenal.
It seems the only time Wenger has a dilemma is when Santi Cazorla returns from injury. When that happens, he has some serious thinking to do. The Spaniard is in the final year of his contract and missed a large swathe of last season with injury.
This time, if Wenger finds himself looking to shuffle the pack for a sustained period, he has some confidence that Xhaka is maturing quickly into a pivotal midfielder.