Many Arsenal fans were a bit surprised to see Granit Xhaka be deployed by manager Mikel Arteta at left back a few weeks ago. Arsenal’s normal starter in the position, Kieran Tierney, has struggled with injuries and has not been able to play since being substituted against Liverpool on April 3rd. Arteta initially chose Cedric Soares for the left back role in the following match against Slavia Prague; however, Xhaka has since switched to the defending position for the club’s last five matches.
The Switzerland international has had an interesting time with the Gunners since his arrival to north London in 2016. His five seasons in London have certainly been a roller coaster of a ride. He’s scored some brilliant long-range goals, been a mainstay in the starting XI, received a few red cards, won two FA Cups, made some key errors, became captain, was stripped of his captaincy, had a contentious relationship with the fans, and now back to being an important player in the team.
Xhaka’s best attributes have always been leadership and his distribution. There are not too many other central midfielders in the Premier League with a better passing range than the Arsenal player. His passing numbers from midfield are regularly near the top of the charts in every season he’s been with the Gunners, both amongst his fellow teammates and the entire league. As a central midfielder, this is not necessarily breaking news. In most cases, central midfielders tend to have play funneled through them. They are what helps make the transition from defense to attack.
What is interesting, however, is the fact that Xhaka is still having play funneled through him while playing left back. Xhaka has led his teammates in passing during all five matches that he’s played at left back, despite having a very capable passer in Thomas Partey in central midfield. This is very telling in how Arteta feels about Xhaka’s distribution.
The 28-year-old midfielder is not exactly playing a typical left back role though. While many full backs regularly push forward towards the opposing penalty area, Xhaka is sitting much further back on the pitch. At times, Arsenal’s formation even looks like a back three with Xhaka sitting next to his center back teammates, while the right back advances forward. Lack of pace is certainly a hindrance in the midfielder playing in this relatively new position. Below are heat maps comparing the differences between Xhaka (red) and Tierney (blue) via Whoscored.com
Xhaka is obviously better suited in midfield, which is why the Swiss player is most likely not making a permanent switch to full back. Nevertheless, he has been a pleasant surprise at the position while filling in for Tierney. Due to his lack of pace, most people assumed he would get torched regularly by opposing wingers. This, however, has not exactly been the case. In fact, Xhaka has only been dribbled past twice in 17 total tackle attempts during his five matches at left back (an 88% success rate).
As Tierney nears his comeback from injury, Xhaka will move back to anchoring Arsenal’s midfield alongside the aforementioned Partey. While Xhaka has done an admirable job in defense, Tierney obviously gives the Gunners more dynamism at left back. Moving back into central midfield also gives Xhaka more options looking forward, rather than being forced to advance the ball somewhat pressed against the touchline. Arsenal will need all of their important players fit if they are to advance to the Europa League final, with a tough clash against Villarreal coming next week.
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