Fire is a good servant but a bad master. It is a long-used idiom cautioning those who use fire to do so wisely and keep it control so it does not hurt you or those around you. Such an idiomatic expression can not only be used to describe how to use a literal fire without causing irrevocable harm, it can also be used to illustrate how the figurative fire that burns within a person can either fuel success or potentially destroy everything that has been built.
Granit Xhaka is a player who fits this bill.
The Arsenal central midfielder, signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach last May in a rare early offseason signing by manager, Arsène Wenger, is back in the headlines for his discipline. Xhaka received his second red card of the season on January 22 in Arsenal’s eventful 2-1 victory in the English Premier League against Burnley at the Emirates Stadium. This means Xhaka is set for a four-match ban at a crucial stretch of Arsenal’s season, including a huge match against league leaders Chelsea on February 4, who sit eight points behind in second place after 22 rounds.
It’s a major loss at a position which seemed the deepest of any team in the league, with the likes of Xhaka, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey to call upon earlier in the season. But with Cazorla out since October with a nagging Achilles injury and Elneny away at the African Cup of Nations, the Swiss international’s suspension could not come at a less convenient time for Arsenal.
On the surface, Xhaka’s lack of gaudy stats (goals and assists) and disciplinary record so far this season make him seem an ineffective addition to the heart of Arsenal’s midfield to some. But when you watch Arsenal, they clearly operate better with Xhaka as a deep lying playmaker. Though the absence of Cazorla’s penetrative dribbling is sorely missed – a capability Xhaka has seldom shown in his career – the former Basel man uses his understanding of picking out passing lanes and ball placement in transition to good effect. This has enabled Arsenal’s movement and build-up play to be more fluent. These were traits badly missed when Santi was injured last campaign, crippling the Gunners title challenge as the likes of Mathieu Flamini had to be used more. The less said about that, the better.
Xhaka has completed 90% of his passes this season with 15 key passes as well as a goal and an assist to his name. His desire to make clean passes up field is as strong as his willingness to do the dirty work defensively, averaging 2.2 successful tackles, 1.75 interceptions and a clearance a game. His status in the game has risen gradually thanks to his performances domestically and in Europe for Gladbach and Arsenal over the last few seasons, so much so, that he’s a top 25 central midfielder in the world per Beyond 90 Minutes statistical rankings. He often plays with an edge that, when corralled, makes him a reliable option to call upon each match day.
Unfortunately for Xhaka, that edge has also called said reliability into question as it has often lent to unnecessary rashness and an increasing negative reputation that contrasts the many positives in his game. His disciplinary record is among the worst of anyone in Europe since the start of the 2012/13 season, with eight red cards in all competitions at club level. That’s more than Real Madrid captain, Sergio Ramos, (who has 21 in his career) has been shown in the same time span (seven), for example. Furthermore, five of those red cards shown to Xhaka have come in the last season-and-a-half.
Some of those reds were highly disputable, including his first one this season for a tackle on Swansea City winger Modou Barrow which seemed your average professional foul to stop a promising counter attack. However, his last two managers, Andre Schubert and Wenger have expressed varying levels of concern regarding Xhaka’s discipline with the former discussing the issue with the player on multiple occasions and even pulled him from a game in Ingolstadt last April fearing he would get sent off after previously getting his marching orders three times in 2015/16.
Wenger mulled Xhaka’s latest red in his presser following the Burnley match.
“Honestly I have to look at it again. The noises I get is that it was a red card and he has to control his game and not punish the team with lack of control in his tackling. We don’t encourage our midfielders to go down on tackles, we want them to stand up and not to make these kind of fouls. If it’s a bad tackle, it’s a red card.” – Arsene Wènger.
Also having conceded two penalties this season, Xhaka’s eagerness to get stuck into every tackle is as much a curse as it is a blessing at times. While some of his reds could be branded as reputation calls, Xhaka has to know that referees take that reputation into account and may lean more towards the cynical way of thinking whenever he makes a questionable challenge. Thus, he has to walk that fine line with care when making challenges. Even though Arsenal won both games Xhaka was sent off in; he certainly cannot afford to take such chances against opposition far more capable of making a man advantage count.
To be fair, the legendary midfielder he and so many others have been tasked to fill the void of since leaving in 2005, Patrick Vieira, was a bit of a head case in his own right as he owns the club’s record for most red cards in the Premier League with eight. Yet, he was arguably the driving force in Arsenal’s title-winning sides and fans will be hoping the 24-year-old Xhaka can replicate some of that steel mixed with undeniable talent and game-dictating ability.
Fire has proverbially been a good servant to Xhaka as it has ignited the all-round strengths in his game and made him a player of strong repute who will only get better with experience. But until he masters that fire instead of the other way around, it could severely damage his promise as well as Arsenal’s hopes of attaining major silverware this season and beyond. He must not allow the red mist to descend and cloud his judgement if his career in London Red is to be a long and successful one.