Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka tells online trolls to leave family alone, ‘If you want to criticize, criticize me’

Granit Xhaka would like to sit down with those that direct the greatest vitriol his way. It is a perfectly natural impulse, a desire to face those who have targeted the Arsenal midfielder and their family and ask “why are you writing things like this?”

Perhaps some of them could do with sitting down and watching what Xhaka does on a football pitch first. He is by no means flawless, but his performances in an Arsenal shirt do not remotely merit the hostility directed towards him and his family.

“I’m the guy on the pitch, it’s not my wife, my little one or my family,” said Xhaka. “If you want to criticize, criticize me. I wish I could meet these people, sit with them and ask ‘why are you writing these things?’

“Of course, you can criticize and say what you want about football, but not about the person, not about the family.”

Xhaka’s relationship with Arsenal supporters has long been tempestuous. Signed to offer midfield steel to a team that had just fallen short of the Premier League title in 2016, the Swiss international struggled to display his best qualities on a consistent basis for most of his career in England, even though he had a penchant for excellence in big games.

That did not end the seething resentment that exploded in late 2019, when supporters whistled his substitution in a draw with Crystal Palace and he let fly with a volley of swearing as he departed the match. At the time it seemed that he might as well keep on walking, the captaincy was stripped from him and talks were underway to send him to Hertha Berlin. The appointment of Mikel Arteta ended talk of an exit and there have been moments of rapprochement between supporters and the player but there are times when it feels like an uneasy truce.

Certainly for some hostility is their default response to Xhaka, who according to analysis by data scientists Signify received 16 instances of targeted racist abuse on Twitter in December. Some of it came from accounts that identify as Arsenal season ticket holders. The club are working with authorities to identify those so-called fans, any that are will be banned.

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As Xhaka notes, the criticism of what he does on the pitch is bearable but it is abuse aimed at him as a person, his family or his friends that he finds unacceptable. Both channels stem from the same source, they are a response to what happens on the pitch: “The problem is only if you lose. It’s not a problem when you win.

“If you lose everyone hates you, everyone is writing you things where it’s not possible to understand how they’re writing stuff like this.”

And Arsenal have been doing a lot of losing this season. Their 11 Premier League defeats are only two short of the record for a 38 game Premier League season, set back in Arsene Wenger’s final year at the helm. They still have 13 matches to claim that place in ignominy for themselves.

Take that period from Wenger’s final year to their recent travails. A key plot point has been the continual churn on and off the pitch, a ceaseless refreshing of players, management and executives. There are few constants from Arsenal’s recent period of decline. Xhaka is one of them and he has certainly played his part in some of their defeats over recent years.

That makes him a lightning rod for a fury that at times seems to be unmoored from how effectively he is actually playing football.  According to fbref his progressive passes, those that lead to his team moving at least 10 yards closer to goal, per 90 in minutes in the Premier League have increased from 5.57 to 7.59. He is passing the ball more accurately than ever before in an Arsenal shirt and his long-range radar is more effective.

There are moments of carelessness, a clumsy pass across his penalty area just before half-time in the 1-1 Europa League draw with Benfica last week comes to mind as does his rash red card in defeat to Burnley, but it is tempting to wonder if these errors might fly under the radar were they not made by Xhaka, who in his first three seasons made six errors leading to goals and this season has made only one that has led to a shot on goal.

A midfielder who once wasted promising moves with careless long-range shots or loose passes is now more efficient than ever before. According to Opta data the number of sequences where he is the last Arsenal player to touch the ball have cratered from 17.85 per 90 to 9.55. It is rarely a good idea to have moves end with the man who is supposed to sit in front of your defense and Xhaka seems to have understood that. 

Since Arteta’s appointment he has dramatically curbed his proclivity for low percentage long range strikes.  There was once a time where a cry of “shoot” from the home crowd would immediately lead to the Swiss international thumping the ball aimlessly towards goal he is now more precise. In the 2017-18 season he took 58 shots from outside the box (scoring once). Under new management he has attempted 12 in 39 league games. It is fair to ask whether he is the sort of elite central midfielder the Gunners need to compete for Premier League titles again but there should be plenty of areas addressed in this team before the 28-year-old.

Most importantly of all Xhaka, once described as a box-to-box midfielder by Wenger despite his lack of mobility being a defining characteristic, seems to have finally been given a clearly defined set of parameters in which to operate thanks to Arteta, a former midfielder who knows what is required for the role.

“The only thing I feel is that I have a lot of confidence in the coach, I’m in a very good shape physically but as well mentally,” he told CBS Sports in his press conference ahead of Arsenal’s second leg with Benfica. “This is key for my game, for me everything has to be clear for what we have to do on the pitch. The coach is helping me a lot.

“Everyone knows he is one of the reasons why I’m still at this club. I have a very good relationship with him and he’s helping me day by day, on the pitch, outside the pitch. I’m very thankful for him because if you have one coach who gives you the confidence and freedom it’s easier for the player.

“He was a midfielder so he knows the position exactly. This is very important for me because he showed me on the pitch where I have to have my body position without the ball, with the ball, where I have to stay, how I can improve my game as well the game from the team. Everything is clear that I have to do on the pitch to help the team.”

From his passing to his eradication of errors, Xhaka has been doing plenty to help his team of late. Those who have not already made up their mind on him would have seen that by now.

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