What is the fondest memory of your childhood? It’s often the usual suspects: going to your first party, a trip to the amusement park, asking that girl out and she saying yes, that magical vacation to New York….
For me, I tend to harken back to the good old days. An era of simplicity, kerosene-lit fires, and truth. An era defined by El Padre, El Hijo, y el espíritu santo. I’m talking of course, about: Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets.
In an act of teamwork not seen since four Scouse boys hopped up onto The Ed Sullivan Show, these three came and conquered the world. But it was more than that. They communicated, they foretold, and above all: they controlled. They controlled every area of the pitch like it was their life at stake, like a Ming Dynasty soldier patrolling the Great Wall.
These three were the guardian angels of my football club, the harbingers of an avant garde, free-flowing style of sport that had not been seen in decades. And they made me fall in love with the beautiful game, like a gullible teenage runaway.
Each one of this tetra dictated the game in their own way. Sergio Busquets, ‘El Quitanieves’ played out of the base, making the first phase of build-up run smoothly and earning plaudits for his ability to simplify the game. Xavi Hernández, El Maestro, ran each station of the game like a fastidious London train conductor. And Iniesta? It’s hard to explain. He was…..Iniesta.
The point is, they had an ability that most footballers don’t come close to possessing, that most footballers aren’t taught to develop, that most footballers will never have, simply because they weren’t born with it. I’m talking about the ability to control a game.
This ability often takes years to mine, it’s the most valuable joker on deck when you’ve got a tactical virtuoso as manager, and it’s harder to find than San Diego snowstorms. It’s why I rushed home from school time after time to watch my heroes play a meaningless Copa Del Rey match. It’s why Real Madrid have won three out of the last four Champions Leagues. And it’s why Arsenal chose to spend £35 million on Granit Xhaka.
The day is Sunday. The month December. Granit Xhaka is not having the best week of his career. In fact, he’s struggling. He knows he didn’t prove anything yesterday against Manchester United, another thumbtack for the tabloids to jab in his rear end, as the Swiss endures the most taxing season of his professional career.
He’s just not got it. After a good first set of games, he’s seemed to have lost it. What were once inch-perfect through balls are now sloppy giveaways to a counter-attacking side, what were once free kicks are now hopeless loops into the goalkeeper’s palms, and what was once a promising starlet is now a tired and traumatized veteran. Having been given the keys to Arsenal’s midfield just last season, Granit Xhaka is entering a Reagan-style decline into senility.
Ladies and gentleman, our protagonist is in distress.
It’s been like this for quite some time now. Like a little brother who knows he has the obligation to step up his role in the family with his older siblings leaving soon for college, but who doesn’t know how he’ll manage to do it. Like a pumpkin awaiting Halloween. Like a polar bear seeing a distant ice chunk in the horizon break off.
He’s not Norman Bowker of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” No, he’s more of the Jimmy Cross. He’s a kid who wound up on the shores of some dangerous jungle, who is asked to lead and protect–but who can’t provide it, and whose guilt at his own lack of leadership is killing him mentally.
Let’s get to why Granit Xhaka is still in the starting eleven.
Interestingly, amid Xhaka’s regular mistakes and consistently gut-wrenching form, he has persisted in the line-up. Why? Because even in his poor games, he often, sometimes incidentally, gives the world a glimpse of his hidden, intrinsic, and yet inescapable genius.
It’s not often a player can both touch the hearts of a fanbase–and yet still provide them a nervous fit before the game ends. Granit Xhaka does that in every game.
So fair play, Xhaka hasn’t had the most convincing of seasons as a 5th-placed team’s starting defensive midfielder. He’s playing with a wobbly house during tornado season, an alternative reality where Santiago Nasar was cognizant of his impending fate. He’s tucked into a starting pivot with Aaron Ramsey, who is currently finding his best form since that glorious first half of the 2013/14 season. He’s trying his best to show why Arsenal made him their gala signing of the 2016 window, and why he made Arsenal supporters gush with his dominant performances from the base of midfield last season. He’s trying. But he can’t. Something’s just not quite right.
But let’s go beyond form. Xhaka gets more criticism than just performances. In January, he was accused of hurling racial abuse at an airline employee. Throughout last season, he was branded with the mark of a dirty player. It’s more than that. Granit Xhaka gets berated for his attire. He went to his own wedding without socks, he spends a fortune on hair maintenance, and for bloody hell, he picked his nose when Tom Cleverley scored!
There are pundits who have spent more time delving into his “self-destructive fashion choices” than the structural reasons for Xhaka’s decline in form. Whether this cumbersome scrutinization a young man’s clothing reflects a deep-lying insecurity with one’s own masculinity or just a Neanderthalian way of itemizing alpha males, I’ll let the big boys in the lab and the professors on Twitter decide. But here’s one thing: it has more to do with the faulty analysis of his character, than the faulty analysis of his game.
I’m not telling you to be nicer to Granit Xhaka. I’m not telling you to like him. I’m telling you to respectfully let him flourish and leave his footprint on English football–for he is part of a dying breed.
In addition to playing for a club whose two best footballers are set to walk away for free in less than a year, Granit Xhaka is one of the very few potential controllers left in today’s game. Next to Thiago, Marco Verratti and Jorginho, he may not be close to them in price tag, but he’s more similar than you think in style. There are a select elite of players who merely have the capability of controlling a game based off sheer individual brilliance, and Xhaka, while he may be using it sparingly, has that tool in his locker. The question is, is this tool worth anything? We’ve been asking this for years now.
It was at the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Final where, needing a goal against a Spain side featuring Thiago and Javi Martínez, Pierluigi Tami, the coach of the Swiss Under-21 side, took off Xhaka for Pajtim Kasami, eventually conceding again in a 0-2 loss at Aarhus Stadium.
Sure, he had been poor that game, and was recently suspended for the semifinal, but he was having his breakout tournament. When trailing, managers almost always go for broke, subbing off a defensive midfielder for a piercing winger or a domineering target man. Kasami was neither. Xhaka would have to wait for his career-defining final. He would go on to win two league titles before the age of 20, becoming a key figure for Basel’s dominance. Then, like every other promising talent in Switzerland, Max Eberl soon snapped him up, and gave him the driving seat for a team that, with Marco Reus gone, needed a star technician to drive Europe mad.
Granit Xhaka obliged, becoming an indomitable force to be reckoned with in the base of Lucien Favre’s Mönchengladbach team. Soon, alongside Mahmoud Dahoud, Granit Xhaka would take Europe by storm.
On August 27, 2015, Gladbach were placed in Group D, the group of soon-to-be Europa League Champions Sevilla, soon-to-be Scudetto champions Juventus, and soon-to-be Champions League semifinalists Manchester City.
It was not to be for Die Fohlen, whose manager was sacked shortly into the season in favor of André Schubert. Nonetheless, Xhaka made a meal out of Juventus’ midfield, and came out of Group D as one of its most noticeable starlets.
Let’s pop over to England. Arsenal Football Club fans are coping with the second installment in the “Santiago Cazorla’s painful descent into physical decrepitude” series. The homegrown kid on a mission–Francis Coquelin–is desperately out of sorts with his Asturian partner-in-crime on the treatment table. A handful of veterans–from Mathieu Flamini to Mikel Arteta–are nervously counting the final paychecks of their last contract from Arsenal. And he doesn’t know it yet, but Mohamed’s ElNeny’s honeymoon is about to end.
Arsenal fans know what they want: the second coming of Patrick Vieira. They just don’t know who.
In a move of uncharacteristically prudent business, Arsenal sealed Xhaka’s signature before the dog days of the transfer window. Before the transfer window had opened, before Xhaka gave a glowing rendition of his abilities at the Euros, before high school had even let out.
It was set. He was primed to be the compass of Arsenal’s midfield. But it was never going to be easy. If you’ve ever watched a high-profile action film, you know they’ve got to stir up tension by killing the bubbly ingenue at the start of the movie. To give the viewer a common enemy. To place guilt on the protagonist’s shoulders. To create a nostalgic wonderland for the reader to retreat to in tough times.
Well, that’s just what happened. After getting sent off due to a reckless knee chopper on Josh Barrow, Xhaka was handed a three-game suspension in the Premier League. Instead of immediately forgiving him and giving him a second chance, Arsène Wenger let his irrational human instinct of angry grudges get the best out of him, and punished Xhaka by benching him against Ludogorets. This very decision would dictate the future of Arsenal’s next two seasons.
It was evident from the start. It was glaringly obvious as the game wore on, and it was downright distressful with more than a quarter in the second half having already transpired. Santi Cazorla, who started instead of Xhaka, trudged off with a foot injury. Mohamed Elneny replaced him in the 57th minute, and two more substitutions would follow, as Xhaka merely looked on with the guilt of a prankster whose shenanigans had finally gone awry.
Thirteen months later, Granit Xhaka, unlike the three substitutions from that October night, is now a starter for Arsenal. Thirteen months later, Santi Cazorla has a skin graft from his arm on his ankle, and he still hasn’t played football since.
We know that while Aaron Ramsey is flourishing with both newfound health and consistency, Granit Xhaka is struggling. Perhaps he needs another…or a new partner in midfield who can do the dirty work. But has Xhaka merited a system change or a new signing simply because of the need to put him in optimal conditions to succeed?
The day is Sunday. The month December. Arsenal have just lost their first home game in the league since January, succumbing to a Jesse Lingard-led counter-attack and a David De Gea highlight reel. Granit Xhaka was run over in midfield yesterday, advancing too high up on the pitch, chasing Paul Pogba’s shadows, and failing to establish himself in yet another big game.
There’s no doubt he’s struggling. But as we have seen time and time again, Granit Xhaka has a unique capacity to not only open up holes in defenses with his individual quality, but dictate games from start to finish. In terms of refining and releasing that potential, it’s not clear if it will take a shift to a 3-man-midfield, a move abroad, or simply patience. Perhaps he will never realize that potential. But the failure to realize that potential does not mean said potential never existed. Just because the trigger’s jammed, doesn’t meant there isn’t a bullet in the chamber.
Granit Xhaka is the last of a dying breed. He stands at odds with the sands of time. You can claim that this breed has lost significance, an artifact compared to today’s high-powered rock n’roll football. You can argue that Arsenal overspent, and should just cut their losses rather than trying to fit him into the system. Perhaps this role is an anachronistic relic of a once-powerful Spanish system. Perhaps this function is more aesthetic than efficient, and perhaps it nothing more than a dwindling tribe up against its final adversaries, the epitome of a term lacking in substance, yet teeming with flavor.
Granit Xhaka is the last of the mediocentros.
By: Zach Lowy
Photo Credit: Getty Images