Has anyone ever recommended a film to you, billing it as the funniest movie they’ve ever seen, acclaimed it an absolute must-see and dubbed it film of the year? That’s what signing for Arsenal is like. No matter how good the film actually is, it can only ever fail to live up to expectation. The Gooner fan base are a relentless propaganda machine that’d make even Joseph Goebbels green with envy. Granit Xhaka arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach last summer and became an immediate victim of his own success. As if Champions League experience, a wealth of international caps and an emphatic endorsement from his previous manager wasn’t enough, Arsenal fans began to clutch to just about anything to convince rivals they’d unearthed the new Vieira. The scrutiny on Arsenal’s shortcomings every May means new signings are faced with the burden of turning the Gunners into immediate title contenders from the moment they unbuckle their seat-belts in Heathrow. The expectation created by Arsenal fans makes signing for the Gunners harder than signing for anyone else in England.
Consider a parallel universe where there is no expectation. There is no-one pretending they’ve spent their Saturday afternoons watching Borussia Monchengladbach games. There is no desire for Xhaka to fail from rival fans. There is no extraordinary pressure and there is no scrutinizing of every touch. Unfortunately, for big money signings, there is no chance of such a life. But look at Rob Holding. The unheard of defender signed from Bolton earned Wenger nothing but ridicule from all corners. But without pressure to perform, Holding has surpassed all expectation and filled in capably when needed. Now imagine Xhaka had that luxury. Imagine what a player with infinitely more ability could have achieved given the same circumstances. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for Arsenal fans. I doubt they’ll learn it.
Paul Merson and his compadres are not fans of the Swiss midfielder. Tune in any Saturday afternoon (assuming you’re not watching Monchengladbach) and you’ll find the so-called analysts berating Xhaka’s lazy, languid style. ‘He doesn’t know what it means to play for a club like Arsenal’, Merson says. ‘These foreigners can’t keep up with the pace of our league’, Charlie Nicholas adds. ‘You’ve got Jack Wilshere at Bournemouth, Jeff, what on earth can this Xhaka bloke do that he can’t?’ They ramble on and on until Phil Thompson decides that 45 seconds without mentioning Liverpool is too long and changes the subject. There’s no-one on hand to provide an alternative view, no-one who’s ever kicked a ball outside of Britain, no-one who could even consider, for the slightest millisecond, that not only might the British style of play not be the best style, but to even acknowledge the mere existence of an alternative way of playing the game. This view isn’t exclusive to pundits. David Moyes dropped his clubs record signing because he “thought the game needed more Britishness in midfield”. His Sunderland team were unsurprisingly relegated. It’s perhaps this school of thought that got the famously industrious Scotty Parker 20 England caps, and robbed Michael Carrick of 50 more.
Perhaps Xhaka’s continental approach to the holding midfield role, choosing to cautiously position himself rather than make regular lung busting 20 yard recovery tackles has doomed him to failure given a jury of English pundits. That’s not a slight on Ngolo Kanté, or any other player who operates in such a way, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Distance covered is an important metric when assessing performance, but is not an exhaustive framework. As William Shakespeare historically said, running is for buses (he didn’t actually say that, that’d be an ignorant, one-sided opinion, hint-hint Mers). Xhaka is often like a bull in a China shop when Arsenal aren’t in possession, as critics are quick to point out (hasn’t a dirty player been what Arsenal have always needed?), his passing range isn’t the finished product yet (note the yet – he can be lethal given time and space), and yeah, he does have a variety of other attributes that need polishing. But he’s 24 and shouldn’t be judged as if adaptation to a new team and a new league is a routine process. Especially one with such a clout of uncertainty surrounding it like Arsenal. Luka Modric struggled in his first year at Spurs and was voted worst signing of the season after moving to Los Blancos. The Croat is now widely considered the best midfielder in the world.
Accompanied by a capable partner in midfield (i.e. not Francis Coquelin), Xhaka has proven his credentials, forming a particularly fruitful partnership with the paradoxically talented Aaron Ramsey at the heart of Arsenal’s 3421 formation. Ramsey is a peculiar player, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. He’s like a heavyweight boxer with a deadly right hook, that’d KO any opponent, but a failure to land can mean lights out. His tendency to attack the opposition box, like a moth to a flame, has been the subject of both the Arsenal fans’ wrath and adulation during his spell at the club. Xhaka’s positional discipline has been critical in getting the best out of the Welshman over the last 2 months. It’s not just a coincidence Mers, believe it or not. There’s plenty more facts and figures that illustrate Xhaka’s resurgence at the tail end of the season but they’re not essential reading for anyone who watched the Gunners for themselves. Needless to say, that hasn’t stopped Arsenal fans using stats ranging from passes per game to farts per minute to prove Xhaka is a top class player. He’s not, at least not yet, but the Arsenal fan hyperbole train is ever-so-slowly moving in the right direction.
Xhaka clearly isn’t the finished product, but he’s shown more than enough potential to support Arsene Wenger’s judgement. Despite what the old-school pundits may tell you, Granit Xhaka actually isn’t a bad player, and by this time next year, yer Da will be shamelessly revising his opinion on the worst signing of the 2016/17 season.