Talking Tactics

Xhaka relishing more freedom at Arsenal

By Adrian Clarke 27 Sep 2022

Adrian Clarke explains why midfielder will be a key player in Saturday's north London derby

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 9.

Granit Xhaka (ARS)

Xhaka has been a player transformed this season, thriving in a new attack-minded midfield role for Arsenal.

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Playing in front and to the left of Thomas Partey, Xhaka has scored once and provided three assists already, producing the best football of his Gunners career.

Occupying half-spaces inside the final third to great effect and rotating positions seamlessly with Gabriel Martinelli and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Xhaka is enjoying a position that requires far less defensive responsibility.

Having won over Arsenal's fans, the 30-year-old is now setting his sights on inspiring a north London derby victory against Tottenham Hotspur.

More freedom

Xhaka has always been an excellent, progressive passer, but now that Mikel Arteta has constructed a better platform behind him, he can use that skill-set higher up the pitch.

By inverting Zinchenko into a hybrid left-back/central midfield role, Xhaka no longer needs to concern himself with covering space or prompting attacks from deep.

Xhaka's goal v Leicester

The presence of Gabriel, William Saliba, Ben White, Partey and Zinchenko - all terrific forward passers in their own right - provides a license for him to perform with more freedom.

Now part of a dynamic attacking midfield unit that contains Martinelli, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka, Xhaka is focusing his attention further forward.

Xhaka's most passed-to team-mate 2022/23
Player Passes
Gabriel Martinelli 52
Oleksandr Zinchenko 41
Gabriel 35
Gabriel Jesus 30
Martin Odegaard 29

The rapport he has struck up with Martinelli has been tremendously exciting.

Playing in the Brazilian as often as possible (and more often than any other team-mate) Xhaka's influence has unquestionably helped the 21-year-old get off to a flyer this season.

Martinelli has scored three goals already and is Arsenal's most creative player, with 15 key passes in open play.

Xhaka threat & chance creation rankings
  20/21 21/22 22/23
Touches in opp. box/90 0.32 (25th) 1.43 (11th) 3.58 (4th)
Open-play chances created/90 0.61 (15th) 1.24 (3rd) 1.86 (2nd)

During the second half of 2021/22, Arteta began to use the Switzerland international in a more advanced role, but he looks far more comfortable there now.

Since last term, Xhaka's touches in the opposition area have increased 250 per cent, averaging 3.58 per 90 minutes, the fourth most of any Arsenal player.

Compared to the 2020/21 campaign, when he played much deeper, the rise is an incredible 1118 per cent.

That season, 24 different Arsenal team-mates enjoyed more touches per match inside the box.

Red marauder

His marauding runs have increased the unpredictability in Arsenal's attacks, and his rotational movement with team-mates has, at times, confused opponents.

When you compare Arsenal's 4-1-4-1 formation with Antonio Conte's preferred 3-4-3 set-up, situations could arise when Arsenal outnumber Spurs inside the midfield.

The Partey-Xhaka-Odegaard axis, supported by Zinchenko when he tucks in, has the potential to dominate.

Spurs' central duo of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur will require support.

Enjoying himself

In the past, Xhaka’s limited mobility exposed him in certain defensive situations.

Under pressure, he would make occasional mistakes or reckless decisions, creating a negative response among supporters.

While he still tracks back to help, he is getting more enjoyment from a role where he can express himself and use his best qualities.

Xhaka's performances have never been better received by the Arsenal fanbase, who acknowledge him to be a key man for them in this match and beyond.

Also in this series

Part 1: Chelsea set to benefit from Potter's flexible changes
Part 2: How O'Neil's changes have lifted AFC Bournemouth
Part 3: How Ten Hag's short-term planning has revived Man Utd
Part 4: Bowen and Antonio can provide missing spark for West Ham
Part 5: Gundogan and Eriksen battle key to derby success

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