Granit Xhaka steps up to become Switzerland’s talisman at Euro 2016

Switzerland's Granit Xhaka

When Granit Xhaka completed his £35m move to Arsenal from Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of May, Gary Lineker, a noted opinion-shaper on Twitter, spotted an opportunity.

“Will Arsenal’s new signing turn them into title contenders?” the former England captain wrote. “Well, if anyone can, Xhaka can … ”

The Match of the Day presenter has become quite the wordsmith, as anybody who listened to his speech in honour of Jamie Vardy at the Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year dinner will attest. That was a beautifully constructed piece and here he raised a smile and a few funk moves with his reference to Chaka Khan and her 1984 hit I Feel for You.

Lineker’s more serious point neatly précised the situation that will confront Xhaka at Arsenal and which has generated traction around him at Euro 2016, where he has driven Switzerland to the first knockout tie of their history at this competition – they face Poland in the last 16 on Saturday in Saint-Étienne.

It has long since reached the point where Arsène Wenger needs to win the Premier League title to vindicate the second part of his tenure at Arsenal and, as he enters the final year of his contract, there are those who think he may be gearing up for a final roll of the dice. On the other hand, it is too early and too difficult to pronounce on Wenger’s future – not least because he has not yet decided whether to give himself a new deal.

Nonetheless, it is plain that a big season lies ahead for him and the club, and Xhaka, as a marquee signing, particularly in the long-time problem position of holding midfielder, will feel a weight of expectation. Nobody expects the 23-year-old to carry Arsenal to the title but there is the hope that he could be one of the missing pieces in the puzzle.

Sky-high expectation levels are part of the territory at the Emirates Stadium, as Xhaka will discover, but here is a player who believes that he has the mechanisms to cope. Moreover, it has been impossible not to have been impressed with him at the European Championship so far, and the manner in which he has stepped up to become Switzerland’s outfield talisman – the goalkeeper Yann Sommer has also been outstanding. Arsenal fans have had their appetites whetted.

During Switzerland’s qualification, it had been increasingly clear to most people – particularly Xhaka – that the manager, Vladimir Petkovic, had an either/or decision to make in midfield. It was either Gökhan Inler, the captain and 89-cap veteran, or Xhaka, the fast rising star. Xhaka felt restricted alongside Inler, when he wanted to set the tempo; to be the boss.

The situation came to a head in March, leading up to the friendlies against Republic of Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Inler, who had joined Leicester City from Napoli last August, was out of favour under Claudio Ranieri and he would be one of the few players who could say the season was a nightmare for him at the King Power Stadium.

Petkovic made his move. He dropped Inler from his squad to face Ireland and Bosnia – a controversial and confrontational decision – and he would not include him in his 23-man party for the finals, even as a fringe player for the benefit of his experience.

Petkovic placed his trust in Xhaka. Although he named the Juventus full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner as his new captain, he made Xhaka and Valon Behrami, the Watford midfielder, the vice-captains. Things did not start well. Xhaka was poor in the 1-0 defeat by Ireland in Dublin and Switzerland would also lose to Bosnia and – in May – Belgium, before they beat Moldova in their final warm-up fixture. Expectation levels among the supporters were low.

Xhaka, however, has imposed himself here and he was at the heart of each of his team’s Group A ties. The statistics show that only three nations have had more possession than Switzerland – Germany, Spain and Portugal – and Xhaka has been the conductor-in-chief.

So much of what Switzerland have done has gone through Xhaka, who has had Behrami as an effective foil alongside him in Petkovic’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Xhaka had many more touches than anybody on either team in the matches against Albania, Romania and France and his passing numbers have been eye-catching.

He made more than twice as many passes as any France player in the 0-0 draw last Sunday and he has made roughly 33% more than his next most involved team-mate in each of the three games. He does not merely play safe square balls. His range has been varied and he has been credited with having created seven chances.

What has been most striking about Xhaka is his ability to look unhurried. He appears to have an extra second on the ball before he is closed down or a tackle comes in while he has two or three options in mind when he receives it and routinely picks the right one.

His composure and aggression have proved a ratings winner. In the Swiss newspapers, the players are awarded marks out of six and, according to Aargauer Zeitung, Xhaka was worth a five against Albania, five and a half against Romania and six against France.

With Switzerland in the more open half of the knockout draw, the fans’ dreams have ignited. Will they ever have a better chance to go deep into this tournament? It is amazing to think that Xhaka remains so young and he will be tested by a fine Poland team. He is ready.

“I have learned one thing in my life,” Xhaka said, in an interview with Aargauer Zeitung. “If I put too much pressure on myself, then everything goes wrong. When I went to Gladbach from Basel in 2012, I put a lot of pressure on myself at first and it was too heavy. I will not put any pressure on myself at Arsenal, even though the transfer fee was high. I feel as though I needed this new challenge and I like challenges.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner in Paris, for The Guardian on Friday 24th June 2016 13.22 Europe/London

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