Xhaka’s roles with Switzerland and Arsenal: How do they compare?


Arsenal have become accustomed to Granit Xhaka pushing further forward in 2022, but Switzerland are still in the teething phase when it comes to his recent reinvention.

Mikel Arteta first gave the midfielder licence to join attacks at the backend of last season, before his explosion in the Premier League this term. But the Swiss’ lack of agility and mobility initially made him seem like a square peg in a round hole in the role.

“I wouldn’t say ‘comfortable’ but sometimes you have to take players from their comfort zone and open a different door to explore what the team will react like (and) what the opposition will do,” Arteta admitted in March when asked what made him comfortable with making the tweak.

He has become a nuisance for Arsenal’s Premier League rivals since then, with one of his most menacing displays coming against Aston Villa.

Warning signs were evident within minutes of kick-off that evening as he allowed Albert Sambi Lokonga’s pass to run through to Gabriel Martinelli

… before making his untracked run beyond the Villa defence into the channel.

Martinelli opted to cross this time, but it was a sign of what was to come. Arsenal ran the same passage of play later in the half, with Kieran Tierney finding Martinelli out wide and Xhaka starting his run into the space behind the Villa midfield.

Untracked again, he was 1) Arsenal’s furthest-forward man when Martinelli played him in, and 2) in acres of space.

His cross/shot took a nick on its way to Emi Martinez, whose fumble was buried by Gabriel Jesus.

Xhaka making these movements has been one of many pillars of Arsenal’s strong start to the season. Switzerland manager Murat Yakin tapping into that for this World Cup is interesting given he was using the 30-year-old as his deepest-lying midfielder as recently as this summer in the Nations League.

While he has often appeared to be freer when playing for Switzerland at major tournaments, Xhaka has often been their ‘quarterback’. Whether they have used a back three or a back four (which tended to become a three anyway), he was the player to pick up the ball deep and distribute to wing-backs who had pushed up. Ricardo Rodriguez on the left flank was the most common target, although Kevin Mbabu gives him a decent outlet on the right when he starts.

Here is how that looked at Euro 2016, when he picked up the ball from the back line…

And picked out Rodriguez who won a corner, from which Fabian Schar scored.

There was another view of the dynamic in the 2018 World Cup when Valon Behrami dropped into the back line to make a three, leaving Xhaka alone in midfield before looking for Rodriguez.

Xhaka only tended to have an impact in the final third with clipped crosses from the left half-space, which have produced a few assists, or arriving very late to finish off moves.

Against Cameroon in Switzerland’s opening match of this World Cup he had a much bigger presence further forward, but this is not a case of a simple copy and paste from club to country.

His willingness to run beyond his marker was clear from the early stages of the game and a few familiar themes began to occur. One of the main reasons Xhaka’s runs have helped Arsenal so much this year is because it gives them at least five players in an attack. This could grow to six if a full-back also gets involved, but facing teams who play with four defenders and with third-man runs hard to contain anyway, it always leaves somebody free.

Switzerland do not play the same way as Arsenal and do not have the same quality across their front line, but you could see that trend crop up when they reached those areas.

Initially Xhaka is in that advanced space, telling Manuel Akanji to travel with the ball.

The centre-back plays a purposeful pass into Breel Embolo who has Xhaka and Djibril Sow near him.

He decides to go wide to Xherdan Shaqiri but he, Xhaka and Sow continue their runs into the box while Ruben Vargas comes into the play from the left too. Shaqiri’s cross is blocked, but Switzerland have five players in their attack and a free man unaccounted for at the back post.

Xhaka burst into spaces like this all game but just was not found.

At times he was a target for an aerial ball which he could cushion down to a nearby team-mate, and at others he was the free man during a free-flowing attack. In these circumstances it seemed like his national team team-mates were still becoming accustomed to having him as an option in those areas, with the most blatant example coming just after the hour mark.

Embolo had done well to retrieve the ball in the final third. Both Vargas and Xhaka were arriving in support, with Shaqiri as an extra man. Embolo found Vargas but in his split-second decision, the winger chose to try and finish the move himself when the pass was the much better option.

Moments like this littered the game, but were not overly troublesome. Problems are there to be made for opposition teams and, as the tournament progresses, it will not be a surprise if Xhaka receives more passes when in those positions than he did against Cameroon.

Although the Arsenal man has improved in tight spaces this year, he has always excelled when given time and space in midfield.

“He’s (Arteta) putting me in the positions where I have freedom, where I have the game in front of me. This is what I like. I don’t like the game with my back to the opponents’ goal; I like to see the whole game in front of me,” he said in February 2021 on Arteta using him more as a ‘quarterback’.

This is how he impressed in Switzerland’s late rally against France in Euro 2020. Forward runners took blue shirts away from him and he had time to pick out a pass to assist Mario Gavranovic.

Interestingly, that more trademark Xhaka involvement was present in the build-up for Switzerland’s winner against Cameroon. Quick play from Rodriguez and Vargas got him the ball in space on halfway and he had time to find the open man in a flowing attack.

While some aspects of his game will never leave, Switzerland using the precious time they have ahead of their next group games against Brazil and Serbia to recognise and exploit his new attributes could be crucial.


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