“With Mikel, I’ve had something of a new start, a reset,” Granit Xhaka said earlier this season.
Speaking to German website Sport1 via Arseblog, Xhaka recognised the role that new head coach Mikel Arteta has played in his resurrection in North London.
“I had very good conversations with him right from the start, in which he showed me what he expected of me, how much he needed me in the team and how much he valued me as a player,” he said.
Xhaka’s resurgence under Arteta has been remarkable. It is also a brilliant illustration of the astute, cerebral, progressive coaching input of the Spaniard.
Arteta immediately reinstated Xhaka to the starting XI after he was stripped of the captaincy following telling supporters to ‘f*ck off’ in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in October. Time had passed since that contentious afternoon and Arteta was keen to lean on the distribution skills of the Swiss international as he rebuilt a lacking team.
Click to play
Tap to play
The video will start in8Cancel
In a slanted 4-2-3-1 shape, Xhaka was handed the perfect role that both accentuated his strengths and limited his weaknesses.
Perhaps out of force with Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac out injured, Arteta used Bukayo Saka, a natural left-winger, at left-back. In possession, Saka would push high up the pitch with the left-winger moving inside. This formed a front five across the advanced positions of the pitch in conjunction with the centre-forward, attacking midfielder, and right-winger.
To balance this offensive-minded shape, Arteta tucked the right-back inside and shifted Xhaka slightly deeper and towards the left-hand side, occupying the space that Saka had vacated by pushing forwards. This created a 2-3-5 formation in possession.
For Xhaka, this was ideal. In possession, his greatest weaknesses are his over-dependence on his left foot and his poor body positioning and awareness when receiving the ball which makes him extremely susceptible to being pressed, especially in central midfield when space is tight and there is little time to receive the ball and release it.
When playing deeper and wider, however, Xhaka is put into spaces of the pitch that make it more difficult to press him, while his frequent use of his left foot becomes a positive. Stationed on the left side of the pitch, Xhaka plays more passes with his left foot, primarily into Saka and the offensive players in the left half of the pitch. In this instance, not coming inside on his right foot means that he can shuttle the ball forward that extra bit quicker.
This also opens up angles to play raking, long-range switches of play to the right flank. In this position, Xhaka has routinely released Nicolas Pepe with cross-field passes from deep that bypass the midfield, move the ball into advanced positions quickly, and help to isolate Pepe against an opposing…