One Man, One Game: Granit Xhaka (vs Tottenham, 30/04/2017)

If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). In the ‘One man, One game’ feature, I do just that.

This week’s One Man, One Game takes on something of a departure, both similar and dissimilar to the recent Guardiola-esque experiment with Jose Gimenez. Similar in that Granit Xhaka is not a centre-back, dissimilar in that I’m not even interested in Xhaka being a centre-back. This is all about the stone-cold* midfield enforcer** himself.

*(Granit, geddit); **(funny because it isn’t true)

Because analysing central midfielders is about fifteen yards further up the pitch than my comfort zone, I’ll only be looking at his first half in this game. You know when you’re learning to cook and you gotta go slow to make sure you don’t cut your fingers off while chopping vegetables and you go back to the recipe five times to make sure you’re not mistaking teaspoons for tablespoons? Yeah, it’s like that.

For centre-backs, I generally split what I’m looking at into several broad areas: positioning; body-positioning; awareness; footwork; ball-playing (if this is a focus then it gets split into vision and technique bits); and physical attributes. This all basically applies to central midfielders too, but they’ve just got a hell of a lot more of the pitch that they need to be concerned with. It looks really hard, guys.

Positioning himself in a good defensive position seemed to be Xhaka’s strongest suit. He had a good sense of where he needed to be and the gaps he needed to fill when Spurs had the ball and were circulating it, looking for a way to break through.

[key point: positioned well in settled midfield; checks shoulder; sees Eriksen moving to try and make space; adjusts position to cover] Xhaka also seems to have good physical attributes-slash-footwork for this role. In this game he was conserving energy by sitting back as Arsenal went forward, but this energy was unleashed if and when Spurs broke, and Xhaka covered behind Ramsey, his central midfield partner in Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1, and filled gaps in the defensive line throughout the 45 minutes.

[key point: Arsenal defending in own box; ball on Spurs left-wing; as they move ball centrally, gap opens in defensive line; Xhaka spots as it develops and covers]

However, this positional sense seemed to leave him a bit when the pressure was turned up a notch. In one moment where he was covering in the Arsenal back-line, as [player] cut inside past Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at right-back, he got drawn a little too close to the ball and there were several Spurs players open on the far-side of the box, which was (based on the team-sheet) Xhaka’s side of the pitch.

Shortly afterwards [in the video below], Spurs were breaking down the centre of the pitch and Xhaka’s positioning as he backed off looked a little towards the ‘dog explores the park’ end of the precision-positioning spectrum. He doesn’t look to be placing himself in good positions on the pitch so much as being blown there by the wind.

On a similar theme, there were a couple of times where he overcooked things when closing someone down. One of the rare times he was engaged in a high press (usually he sat behind Arsenal’s forward line) he was completely done by Jan Vertonghen on the ball, and wound up chasing after and fouling the defender. In another, he initially came across to tackle Son well in midfield, but seemed to accelerate a little too fast or misjudge the ball’s speed and, again, wound up fouling the player [see vid].

So, clearly one would want to spend more time watching a player before coming to any firm conclusions about them, but I’ve built up a relatively decent body of work on analysing players so any semi-firm conclusions come from a decent place (note: see what I said about Smalling during the 2015/16 season, when he was much hyped, before his fall in public opinion)

Xhaka’s positioning seemed decent, and probably his best suit (though ask Arsenal fans about his skill-set ranking), although he lost it a bit under pressure. Arsenal are not a team who are regularly solid defensively, and tend to (compared to other teams) defend in a high block, then nothing, and then in a retreated low block. Perhaps this is not what suits Xhaka best and, if Arsenal are genuinely more solid in their 3-4-2-1 than their old 4-2-3-1, this new formation might help him


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