Granit Xhaka Is Arsenal’s Most Important Midfielder

Since his move to Arsenal in the summer midfielder Granit Xhaka has had a somewhat mixed time in North London. Although many people won’t deny his passing ability his indiscipline – specifically two completely avoidable red cards – has also earned him some critics.

This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given his three red cards in the Bundesliga 15/16, but this indiscipline shouldn’t detract from the qualities he has brought to the side.

Xhaka’s passing is his best quality but just what has his passing added to Arsenal?

For this I looked at the passing stats of Arsenal’s main five central midfielders – Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey – to try and determine exactly what Xhaka brings to the midfield. This has then been visualized in this Tableau:

NOTE: Due to having no experience with this kind of data or Tableau, it’s a bit limited as it doesn’t show the line of the pass. It just gives the start point and tells you the end point rather than a pass map. You can filter by game, player and start/end location. So for example select Xhaka and Bournemouth (A) then filter the start X from 0 to 66.7 and the end X from 66.7 to 100 and you’ll see the passes Xhaka sent into the final third for the 3-3 draw at Bournemouth.

So what can be drawn from this data?

To try and do this I broke down the passing into different categories depending on the zone they originated and zone they ended in. These categories are:

  • To the final third
  • Out of defensive third
  • Out of own half
  • Final third to Final third
  • To one of the halfspaces
  • Into the box

There’s very marginal differences between some of these results, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The first result to note is that Xhaka is the most adept of the Arsenal midfielders at bringing the ball from the defence to start attacks.

Out of Own Half
15% of Xhaka’s attempted passes are from his own half into the oppositions, the next closest is Coquelin with 9.8%. Given that Xhaka averages roughly 20 passes more per game than Coquelin though this will translate to bringing the ball out of his own half five times more per game – approximately double. The difference between the two can be highlighted in the following clips:

These are only taken from the first game of the season against Liverpool and the home loss against Watford. In the Liverpool game Coquelin and Elneny started while against Watford it was Coquelin and Ramsey. You’ll see though there’s not really many options for the defender in possession – some credit must be given to the opposition but it happens frequently for Arsenal. The defender has no option so is forced to the full back, who is then pressed and has no option but back to the centre back and then the best case scenario tends to be the centre back trying to pull off an unlikely pass – see Laurent Koscielny trying to feed the ball to Olivier Giroud’s feet above.

This isn’t to say going out wide is bad, there’s a couple examples below where they build well from going out wide. In the first clip Coquelin makes a better angle for the pass then thanks to some movement from Alex Iwobi creating a triangle they’re able to work the ball past the Watford midfield and turn to pick out a pass.

Then in the second example Elneny makes the angle for the pass while Ramsey moves wide and they’re able to combine on the right side. Unfortunately they can’t progress any further – it even looks as though Elneny is blocking Hector Bellerin’s potential passing lane to Iwobi (although it would have been a difficult pass to make) – but then they recycle the ball well. Iwobi again moves well to pick up the ball past the first Liverpool line and would have been past the second had Coquelin been able to play the one two. Coquelin then recovers and gives the ball to Ramsey who can break the line to Elneny who’s then in the position to make a pass into the final third and start to threaten.

Now compare this with some clips of Xhaka’s passes from his own half into the opponents. It’s not as though each one is perfect, for example the ones into Alexis Sanchez’s feet against West Brom seem good but it’s hard for him to get under control with several players around him. Despite this you can see he is much more willing to bring the ball from the defenders and is more comfortable when looking for and picking out a pass.

He can resist pressure well too, there’s a great clip that didn’t make it in here (technical difficulties) against Watford away where he holds off Étienne Capoue before turning and picking out a pass. He tends to have a look to see if there’s a positive move then if there isn’t recycle the ball and try again. My personal favourites are the passes to Iwobi (unfortunately glitched) and Elneny against Crystal Palace – these are the kind of passes which Arsenal can struggle to pull off if Xhaka or Cazorla are missing.

Out of Defensive Third
The defensive third category was a bit of a damp squib as the highest was Xhaka with 4.4% of his passes advancing the ball from the defensive third – but the range was only 2.6% to 4.4%. This most likely being as Arsenal tend to control possession and impose their game on other teams the passes in the defensive third will be the centre-backs bringing the ball out and advancing it rather than the central midfielders.

To the The Final Third, Final Third to Final Third and Into The Box
The percentage to the final third was more interesting however. Xhaka again led the way with 17.2% of his passes going to the final third with Cazorla in second with 15.2% while the other three all stayed within the 12% range. This becomes even more impressive when you factor in Xhaka and Cazorla play a lot more passes per game than the others.

The only place where Xhaka falls behind his teammates is when it comes to playing in the final third. He has the lowest percentage of passes in the final third to the final third (16.3%) marginally less than Elneny (16.9%) while Cazorla leads the way with 27%. This is interesting considering Wenger’s quotes from earlier in the season:

Every week he’s stronger and better. I think he will play a big part. He has the stature, the power the strength. Many players it took some time to get into the team, it happens. I prefer him as a box-to-box player. He has the engine to have an impact with his runs.

Given that he has the lowest percentage of passes inside the final third and the second least into the box per 90 it feels like a strange choice for a box to box midfielder. Of course the role he has played so far will impact these stats but he doesn’t seem to be a box to box player. It seems as though he could work best bringing the ball out from defence and starting attacks while being partnered with a more attacking player to make runs into and connect with the final third.

For example he could be partnered with Cazorla if they need intricate passing in small spaces around the box, but if there’s space to be exploited he could be partnered with Ramsey who can run into the final third and link up with the likes of Sanchez, Iwobi and Mesut Özil.

Halfspaces
Part of this section was influenced by this article about finding the best pass in the Bundesliga. After seeing the Julian Weigl ‘halfspace to halfspace’ passes I thought it’d be interesting to see how many passes per 90 the Arsenal midfielders firstly make into the halfspaces from anywhere on the pitch and then from half space to the other half space.

To do this I set the halfspaces as X > 60 and 20 < Y < 40 or 60 < Y < 80. Using this as a guide with the pitch being split horizontally into five.

Arsenal have lots of creative players who are capable at combining in the halfspaces and getting into dangerous areas so it was interesting to see which players supply these players the most.

Cazorla led the way with 19.3 passes into the halfspaces per 90 – unsurprising given he often contributes to the combinations in the halfspaces with the attackers. There’s not a huge gap between the rest of the players, Xhaka comes in second with 13.8 while Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny have 12.1, 10.4 and 12.7 halfspace passes respectively.

Xhaka (3.00) was  second when it came to halfspace to halfspace passes too, making 0.04 less per game than Elneny (3.04)  while the other players didn’t exceed 1.3 per game.

Here’s a selection of some of Xhaka’s passes into the final third and halfspaces:

Defence
This section wasn’t analysed as much as the passing, it’s just looking at the defensive actions of the players per 90 minutes. The full stats will be posted below in an appendix.

Xhaka makes more defensive actions per game than any of the other midfielders and has surprisingly won 73.1% of all his attempted tackles – only Elneny has a better rate. He wins more tackles and makes more ball recoveries per 90 than Coquelin, who’s generally seen as the defensive midfielder to break up play. His indiscipline and tendency to jump into tackles too early is what’s hindering him from being recognised for the positive aspects of his play – both attacking and defending – but these can be coached out of him.

If he can improve his positioning to counteract his lack of a mobility he can play a similar role for Arsenal to what Julian Weigl plays for Borussia Dortmund. With smart, incisive, passing and effectively closing down passing lanes and cutting off space rather than going to ground and leaving the team in a dangerous position.

Arsenal have reached a point where they could probably play most games without an out and out defensive midfielder. They’ve won all their games without Coquelin this season. This has shown as Coquelin has seemed to evolve, in the clips above you’ll see he’s ahead of Xhaka and combines in the final third more than Xhaka. Defensively this can work as he can initiate the press in the final third and win the ball back early – this often doesn’t go to plan though.

The team doesn’t press as a unit which often means Coquelin’s pressing leaves holes in the rest of the team. Offensively when he has the ball in the final third he’s pretty limited with it, he’s not great with the ball in tight spaces and when he makes the runs in behind and gets the ball it very rarely turns into something. Eden Hazard’s goal against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge was almost a highlight reel of the flaws in Coquelin’s game. He gives the ball away with a careless pass, presses getting himself out of position and then loses out to Hazard when trying to recover.

Had he made a better job of the pass Arsenal would be in a dangerous position. Even after the pass though he could have held his position and let Iwobi press David Luiz so when the ball was played he could have intercepted the knock down to Hazard or at least held him so Arsenal could get numbers back.

Summary
Granit Xhaka may not be the answer to all of Arsenal’s problems – this article shows a lot of Arsenal’s problems are more systematic than personnel based – but the team is a lot more connected when he’s in the side. He brings the ball out of defence and into the final third more than any of the other Arsenal midfielders. When fully fit Arsenal have lots of choices for their midfield two leading to lots of debates about what their best midfield partnership is but what they should be asking is what player is best to partner Granit Xhaka.

Appendix

Here’s a link to the stats for the passing and defensive actions. Sorry they’re not laid out in the most convenient way to read.

 

 

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