You can’t argue that Arsenal did not know what they were getting when they splashed out £30 million on Granit Xhaka.
“In Germany you can play aggressively but the referee will always blow his whistle, but in England that’s not the case” he said in a statement after his move was confirmed, “I’m an aggressive player and also a leader”.
Aggression, a key component of his game
In each instance aggressive was the operative word.
The Swiss midfielder picked up 41 yellow cards for Borussia Monchengladbach over 4 seasons since he moved to Germany in 2012 while the 5 red cards picked up over the past two campaigns preceded another sending off in Switzerland’s opening World Cup 2018 qualifier for a rash challenge on Portugal’s Joao Mario.
The indiscipline did not prevent manager Andre Schubert from handing Xhaka the captain’s armband at Gladbach last September and the flow of only 5 yellow cards, plus one red, across the following 8 months of the Bundesliga season may have suggested that added responsibility had helped the 24-year-old to become calmer on the pitch.
The midfielder scored in his first game as Gladbach captain, in a 4-2 win over Augsburg, but he was also withdrawn late on as a yellow card threatened to turn into a red as he lost his head.
“I picked Xhaka because he is also someone who has to learn to take responsibility” said Schubert and with Xhaka at the centre of the frantic win over Augsburg, in which he was lucky not receive a second yellow for giving away a penalty, it was clear why.
“I won’t be forgetting the experience any time soon” was the Swiss international’s own reflection on the night.
Though he did manage to captain Gladbach to a fourth-place finish after a difficult start to life after previous manager Lucien Favre, and when Wenger dipped into the market in May there was a feeling that he was finally adding some grit and leadership to his too-often vulnerable midfield engine room.
Big outlay and high expectations, yet the indiscipline continues
For the £30 million fee, out of tune with manager Arsene Wenger’s normally cautious approach to the transfer market, Arsenal would also believe themselves to be getting a player of intelligence, a player who finished last season with 27 chances created from deep midfield and an 85% pass completion rate.
A thinking footballer with a passion for science, Xhaka had been named “little Einstein” during his formative years in Switzerland.
Six months into his Arsenal career however and it is apparent the penny has not yet dropped in terms of the midfielder’s indiscipline.
His second red card of the season, coming in the 2-1 win over Burnley and incurring the wrath of Wenger, followed the theme of his first, against Swansea back in October.
Supplementing other indiscretions, like the needless penalty he conceded in the draw away at Bournemouth, both were poor, unnecessary tackles made in a reckless loss of composure with his team free from danger.
Suspended during a significant period for Arsenal
The Swiss will now be missing for four games in what, with the trip to title-rivals Chelsea included in that run, is a period of huge significance for Arsenal.
With Arsenal already short in the midfield department due to Santi Cazorla’s Achilles injury, Xhaka’s aggression has understandably angered Wenger, who watched on as Burnley, galvanised by his dismissal, fought-back and were unfortunate not to steal a point from the Emirates.
“He has to control his game and not punish the team with a lack of control in his tackling” said Wenger, “we don’t encourage our midfielders to go down on tackles, we want them to stand up and not to make this kind of foul. If it’s a bad tackle it’s a red card.”
Wenger’s mood would not have been lightened by reports of a row with British Airway’s crew at Heathrow Airport on Monday in which he allegedly shouted racist abuse at airline staff.
Questioning under caution by police will be followed by the showdown with the manager, previously scheduled for this week to discuss Xhaka’s disciplinary record, and is sure to involve a manager low on patience and perhaps otherwise engaged with trying to locate the midfielder’s receipt.
A steady start, despite the disciplinary issues
The midfielder’s impact however has been otherwise steady, with 19 appearances made so far as the partnership with Francis Coquelin in a combative midfield has grown.
The 10.5 shots per game they are permitting at Petr Cech’s goal is down from the 11.8 they were allowing last term and an added resilience was indicated by the way the Gunners responded to a mid-December dip in form to dig deep in wins over West Brom and Crystal Palace over the festive period, as well as coming back to draw 3-3 with Bournemouth, in which Xhaka provided Olivier Giroud’s late equalising header.
Similar to the player he was at Gladbach, Xhaka has been key to a more belligerent Arsenal.
Nobody in the squad has won more tackles than Xhaka’s 52 as he and Coquelin provide a steely base for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to perform in attack.
After Wenger said in November he was struggling to adapt to the Premier League because he was not defensive enough, Xhaka is now responding as well as ensuring his team ticks over with a more composed array of passing; Xhaka has completed more passes this season than anybody else in the Arsenal squad.
Of those who have started 8 games or more at Arsenal this term, nobody can better his average pass completion rate of 89.4%.
A habit of scoring stunning goals has also followed him from Germany where he won Gladbach’s goal of the season for each of the past two seasons, scoring this term with scorching strikes against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup and Hull City in the Premier League.
Tackles and stunning goals galore aside, his red cards could prove costly
Goals are not what the midfielder is being judged on though, or his impressive passing and ball-winning rate.
The amount of cards he attracts is agitating Wenger and if it threatens to cost his team’s title-challenge, the manager may have to shuffle his pack to find another ace.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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