Arsenal has plenty of problems, but Granit Xhaka is not the club's most deserving scapegoat.

By 90Min
August 21, 2017

It has not taken long for Arsenal fans to start pointing fingers and looking for a scapegoat for the poor start to their Premier League season. After scraping past Leicester last Friday, Arsenal's 1-0 defeat to Stoke this weekend has once again released anger and pushed the fans ever closer to unfurling banners in another fit of self-righteousness.

Mesut Ozil is often the man held responsible as his languid style gives off the impression of being nonplussed, but it is Granit Xhaka who is increasingly in the firing line for his performances in Arsenal's midfield.

It was Xhaka who gave away the ball in the middle of the park against Stoke, allowing the home side to counter on Arsenal's shambolic defence and score what would prove to be the winner through Jese on his debut. 

His disciplinary record has also come under scrutiny after several incidents last season, however, far too much attention is placed on this perceived weakness and not enough on the crucial passing role he plays in the side, even more fundamental in the absence of Santi Cazorla.

Last season in the Premier League, Granit Xhaka completed 2,298 passes, second only to Cesar Azpilicueta, and his 200 passes already this season, including two assists, put him top of the passing charts over the first two games.

While these stats are undoubtedly boosted by Arsenal's insistence on spending the vast majority of every game passing aimlessly side-to-side, it is clear that Xhaka is essential in keeping his side ticking along.

Xhaka's reputation for being a liability due to his ill-discipline is also slightly unwarranted, being the victim of some questionable decisions and only receiving five yellow cards across the whole season. His red card against Swansea last season was the very definition of a yellow card, and often his poor technique when tackling made challenges look worse than they actually were.

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The real problem regarding Granit Xhaka is the lack of a midfield partner for the Swiss international. Arsene Wenger signed a £35m midfielder and provided him with neither the system nor the company in which he would be able to thrive.

It's no coincidence that Xhaka's best performances came at the end of the season, when Arsenal switched to a three-man defence and Aaron Ramsey was alongside Xhaka in midfield. Xhaka was able to sit deep and control play through his calmness and ability on the ball, while Aaron Ramsey then had the freedom to make his dangerous runs forward.

Given the unenviable task of partnering everyone from Francis Coquelin to Mohamed Elneny to Alex Iwobi, Xhaka understandably struggled and found himself benched early on in his Arsenal career. However, Wenger gradually changed his opinion on the player and realised he wasn't a box-to-box midfielder but rather a deep lying playmaker. 

In his absence, Arsenal are left with a midfield that inevitably involves Francis Coquelin, a player who looked vaguely adequate for six months due to a complete lack of other options. Without Xhaka's ability on the ball in taking the ball from the defence and bringing it forward, Ozil feels he has to drop deep to avoid Coquelin touching the ball and the balance of the side is ruined.

Xhaka isn't the fastest midfielder and doesn't have the best technique when tackling, so if anyone is judging him on those attributes they will come to the conclusion that he was a disastrous signing.

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In reality, he was anything but. In Cazorla's absence, he has the best passing range of any Arsenal player and is crucial to other players performing well in the system. Xhaka was not signed to make bursting runs forward, and his role in the team allows Ozil and Ramsey the freedom to shine.

Granit Xhaka is not the type of player that will transform Arsenal's fortunes during a bad patch, and therefore struggled for much of last season as the side's system as a whole was disastrous up until the last couple of months.

However, when given the right partner in midfield and enough of the ball to control the game, he is essential in keeping Arsenal ticking along. He has shown a noticeably better temperament and reliability defensively, and Xhaka therefore has an important role in ensuring any 'Wenger Out' planes stay grounded.

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