Fresh off the impressive 2-0 victory over Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, there was one thought that sprung to mind. Granit Xhaka is becoming an unsung hero this season, and Arsenal fans won’t want to admit that.
I’ve been guilty of blaming Xhaka for a lot of Arsenal’s shortcomings over the last few seasons, but that hasn’t been the case this time around. I’m not just saying this because he scored the opening goal on Sunday, but he has improved significantly since Unai Emery took charge last summer.
He controlled the midfield from start to finish against Manchester United, making Paul Pogba & Nemanja Matic look average at best in the midfield battles. Xhaka was also the key man in front of the back four preventing many attacks from the usually lethal frontline of Marcus Rashford & Romelu Lukaku, this is something that he’s been accustomed to doing, even more so after his brief stints at centre back and left back earlier in the season, although the less said about those performances the better.
It wasn’t just Sunday where Xhaka showed his midfield prowess, he’s been one of the first names on the teamsheet for the large majority of the season. So far this season in the Premier League, Arsenal are at 15 wins, five draws and five defeats with Xhaka in the side which is already looking to be an improvement from 19 wins in 38 appearances with his involvement in the side last season.
With those stats, it’s clear that Emery should take some credit for the improvement of Xhaka this season. He clearly sees Xhaka as an important figure in the line-up, giving him the captain’s armband numerous times and with the passion he shows on the pitch he has the makings of a future permanent Arsenal captain.
One of the main problems that Xhaka has had throughout his entire career is his disciplinary record. In January 2017, Xhaka received a straight red card against Burnley in what was his second sending off within his first six months at Arsenal. That was also his ninth red in three years at that stage. Since then, however, Xhaka has not received a red card in the Premier League. That shows the improvements he’s made to his temperament and it has had a positive effect on the rest of the team.
This season has already been Xhaka’s best for Arsenal in front of goal as well, scoring four goals in the Premier League so far. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s the importance of the goals that he’s scored this season that stands out the most. His goal against Manchester United on Sunday was the catalyst for a comfortable Arsenal victory, while his free-kick earlier in the season away at Newcastle United was crucial as they held on for a narrow win at St James’ Park. His contributions, while limited, have been vital as Arsenal fight for a place in next season’s Champions League.
These are just some of the qualities that everyone knew Xhaka could bring when he joined from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016 and finally it seems like he’s living up to those promise. While he may still divide opinion amongst Arsenal fans, there’s no denying that Xhaka is becoming an important figure as the club try to reclaim the successes of the early 2000s.