Why Granit Xhaka should win the Ballon d'Or
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Why Granit Xhaka should win the Ballon d'Or

02/07/24 11:59

Just a few years ago Granit Xhaka’s career looked like it was on the ropes.

He joined Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach for a fee of around £35 million, but he just wasn’t performing to the standards that we now know he can. The Swiss midfielder was Arsenal captain at the time, under manager Unai Emery, but was by no-means a fan favourite.

He was pinned into a box, and it looked like he would be nothing more than a midfielder known for his ill-discipline. Xhaka saw a flurry of yellow and red cards throughout his Arsenal career, and until recently, never seemed to make up for it with a positive impact on the game.

In fact, in November 2019, Xhaka was stripped of Arsenal captaincy. In a home game against Crystal Palace Xhaka was subbed off, and to his surprise, cheers rang throughout the Emirates. Xhaka reached a boiling point, he threw his shirt to the floor, cupped his ears to the fans and yelled obscenities.

So now, five years later, I’m seeing shouts for Xhaka to win the Ballon d’Or? What on earth has happened?

Mikel Arteta’s Appointment

Just over a month after Xhaka’s incident against Crystal Palace, Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta. Arteta had played for Arsenal just a few years prior, incidentally, as a central midfielder.

As Granit Xhaka looked certain to leave North London, he popped into their new bosses office to say goodbye. What instead happened was nothing short of a minor miracle, and somehow Mikel Arteta convinced Xhaka to stay.

No one could’ve predicted just how vital this conversation with Arteta was, for both Arsenal and Granit Xhaka. The Swiss midfielder, although still prone to an overcommitted challenge, reignited his career. Working under Arteta awoke something in Xhaka, and suddenly he had unlocked an impressive range of passing and a far more clinical final ball.

As youngster Gabriel Martinelli established himself in Arsenal’s first team, Xhaka’s excellent eye for space gave the Brazilian every opportunity he needed to show Mikel Arteta just how much ability he had. I think perhaps the explanation for Martinelli’s dampened form in the Premier League this year, as Arsenal narrowly missed out on the title again, comes from playing in front of a Xhaka-less midfield.

Then in 2022/23, after two full seasons of Xhaka playing out of his skin, something took him up another gear. Not only was he controlling a midfield, excelling in line-breaking passes and defensive blocks, he had increased his output wildly. Xhaka now had a licence to push forward, be that to shoot or lay the ball off to a teammate in a better position. The midfield finished the season with nine goals and seven assists across all competitions, a far cry from the loose cannon who arrived at the Emirates and only seemed keen on getting himself sent off.

At the end of the campaign, as Arsenal missed out on the Premier League title to Manchester City, Granit Xhaka decided it was time to move on. The gunners had plotted their move for Declan Rice, and it seemed Xhaka could sense his involvement would be limited, despite his good form.

So when Bayer Leverkusen came in with a bid of around £21.5 million for the midfielder, Xhaka was convinced by Xabi Alonso’s project and packed his bags for Germany.

Xhaka’s First Season at Leverkusen

I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted just how successful Xhaka’s start to his career in Germany has been.

Alonso’s Leverkusen side completed an invincible domestic double, winning both the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal without losing a single game. In fact, his side came very close to securing an invincible treble, if it wasn’t for a heartbreaking defeat in the Europa League final against Atalanta.

You know who was the foundation of such a wildly successful season? Granit Xhaka. The midfielder worked tirelessly across the campaign, and barring a suspension, was only not selected for the Werkself team once the Bundesliga title had been wrapped up.

Xhaka’s style of play has evolved even further at Leverkusen, at 31 years of age you think he’d be done learning but alas, the midfielder finds even more half spaces across the midfielder. He often pops up in the middle of opposition triangles, giving his teammates options at all angles and always giving him the chance to recycle the ball effectively.

In fact, Xhaka had the second highest open-play pass completion rate in the Bundesliga last season, bested only by teammate Jonathan Tah. It’s worth noting that centre-backs like Tah have an easier job keeping their pass completion high, as they sit deep they have the most options on the pitch to lay the ball to.

Working harmoniously with manager Xabi Alonso, Xhaka has also started working towards collecting his coaching badges, and it’s obvious the influence his experience has brought to what is a very young Bayer Leverkusen squad.

Granit Xhaka cemented just how successful this season has been for him, with a wonder goal in the DFB-Pokal final. With 0-0 on the scoreboard, Xhaka picked up a loose ball 30-yards from goal and in one motion, slammed a curling effort into the apex of the top corner. It was completely unstoppable, and ended up being the goal to win Bayer Leverkusen the domestic double.

Euro 2024

Xhaka headed to Euro 2024 as Switzerland’s most capped player and captain, and he’s taken his club form into the competition with him.

Switzerland have been great with Xhaka in the heart of midfield, finishing second in their group and even securing a draw against a goal-hungry Germany side. It was in the round of 16 where Switzerland really impressed pundits and fans alike, after a convincing win against Italy many are brandishing Xhaka’s side as dark horses for the competition.

As they head into the quarter-finals knowing they’ll face Gareth Southgate’s lacklustre England side, who have relied on individual brilliance so far in the tournament, they’ll know they can win if they can brandish a similar performance to the one they produced against reigning champions Italy.

If Switzerland do beat England, they’ll play one of Turkey, Austria, The Netherlands or Romania in the semi-final. Switzerland, on their current form, could breeze past any of these sides and could find there way to the final.

Should Xhaka continue his fantastic form, and Switzerland make it to the latter stages of the tournament, perhaps those crazy shouts of Ballon d’Or won’t be too far off. I’ve seen crazier.

Benji Kosartiyer
Journalist
Joe Southan

Football Writer

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