Xhaka sublime. But by anyone’s standards, Arsenal have had a poor season.

By Tony Attwood

The first two words of that headline, “Xhaka sublime”, came from a blog, The Hard Tackle, which is not a source that I normally associate with such praise.   The piece was a review of a Swiss interlull game and read, “The creative powerhouse for Switzerland, Xhaka ran the show from midfield, opening up play superbly with accurate long balls. The talisman in Vladimir Petkovic’s side.”

The second (“by anyone’s standards”) came from GunnersToday, and both had me pondering.

I have never been a knocker of Xhaka, seeing him as a player adapting to a style of play that is different from the one he was used to, and in particular I think, different from the speed he was used to.   I also suspect that he may well have been taken aback by the criticism some of the blogs have thrown at him, with their typical over-the-top appraisals of doom, despair and destruction.

Also I have personally seen him improving as he has adapted to the style and position that he has been asked to play in, and particularly, adapted to the weird and wonderful ways of the English refereeing system in which referees run far less distances than their compatriots in Europe but claim this as a major achievement while getting almost 99% accuracy in their decision making.

And the Hard Tackle is not the only one to change its tune a little.  Pain in the Arsenal said a week ago, “Arsenal should not rely on steady goals from Granit Xhaka, but his assist numbers are a different story. The best is yet to come from the Swiss.”

And it is not as if we bought a player who had yet to prove himself.   In 2016 Xhaka had the second best pass completion rate in the the Euros.

But no, the word went out that Xhaka was useless, and so the bloggettas with their 10-a-day habit of 100 word pieces pounced on that.  One of the ten a day done – do Xhaka.

As for the “by anyone’s standards” comment, it raises the question, what is a poor season “by anyone’s standards”?   Poor compared with the last 20 odd years of Mr Wenger?  Yes because we are sixth and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round we played that is poor by the standards he has set.

But poor compared with some of George Graham’s seasons? Some of Bertie Mee’s seasons?  Some of Chelsea’s and Manchester United seasons in recent years?  Most of Tottenham’s seasons?  No, not poor.

I suspect, although of course I don’t know, that the writers would just claim that this was a “come on”  line as an opening – a way to get readers going, not a line to be taken literally.  But in fact some people do take these things literally, just as they take all sorts of simple ideas and see them as inviolable truths.  (Untold is written of course for a higher class of readership; readers who can take in 1000 words and get the overall gist, even when I ramble).

It is unfortunately something that has been with Arsenal for years and years – taking a simplicity and turning it into something universal – and indeed I have been writing something of this on the Arsenal History Society of late.   I won’t bore you with the whole story – because the current series on that site is one that really does try to take apart the whole detail of what happened in the early part of last century at the club, but here’s one little bit, just to show how history can be re-written.

Most of the stories known today about Arsenal in the period before and after the first world war come from one source: Leslie Knighton, who wrote an autobiography some 22 years after he left Arsenal, and had retired from football.  The book was serialised in a sunday newspaper and a major part of that serialisation involved his time at Arsenal.  Sadly Bernard Joy, an Arsenal man, then wrote a history of Arsenal in which he took Knighton’s highly misleading and often factually incorrect autobiography as the truth, rather than a series of self-serving inventions, so the story spread.

In essence the story told is of what a great manager Knighton was, but how he was tricked and cheated throughout by Henry Norris who sold the best players, wound up Knighton’s scouting network, had ludicrous restrictions on who could be put bought including a maximum amount that could be spent on any player, and was so mean that poor Knighton was reduced to playing the brother in law of the club’s physio on the wing as he had no one else.  He also claimed that after two years at Arsenal, Man City the club at which he had previously been assistant manager, asked him to return, but Norris begged him not to go and made incredibly generous offers to keep Knighton – offers on which he then failed failed to deliver.

These story have been repeated and repeated, along with the one that Norris bribed officials to have Arsenal elected to the first division in 1919, and others which, as we’ve not got to them yet in the series I won’t spoil the story by revealing now.

The “brother in law” jibe referred to a player who had won the league with Rangers, was an Arsenal star, and was so highly regarded that when Knighton was sacked Chapman specifically went out and persuaded the player out of retirement so he could play again for Arsenal.  All the evidence from the time suggests that the last thing in the world Man City wanted at the time was Knighton back: their manager was an utterly proven winner and a major local hero.  The alleged transfer maximum was never in place, for Arsenal paid far more during Knighton’s time than he alleged.  Reading the material of the day only one conclusion can be reached, Knighton was a conman and a fantasist whose tales don’t match the historical record.  And yet his story is believed.

But the stories have remained and week by week we deal with them, showing each to be untrue.  The latest episode May/June 1921: Knighton the fantasist. The fourth allegation has just been published, and there are links to the whole series, and all the reports on the other allegations of the era on that page.

Stories were made up in the early part of the last century, and they are made up now, and I just have an interest in unravelling them.  The story that this season of Arsenal’s will be our worst ever (worst, presumably than the season in which we got relegated, and the two Mee seasons in which we flirted with relegation, and the 1953 to 1968 period in which we never won a single trophy and….) is another one that floats around but of course it is untrue.  The last eight years have not been as good as 1997/8 to 2004/5, but then no other period has ever been that good.  Ever.

That’s what the headline should have said.   This season has not been up to the standard of 1997/8 to 2004/5, but then only one period in Arsenal’s history ever was.  And that was 1929/30 to 1937/8.

Occasionally it is worth look back at the facts.

The website of the AISA Arsenal History Society 

Arsenal and the League 1920/1: the crowds and Arsenal’s team



18 Replies to “Xhaka sublime. But by anyone’s standards, Arsenal have had a poor season.”

  1. Xhaka is a seriously good player. Arsenal do not always give him the defensive support that Switzerland do, he has a lot to do in his role under Wenger, to say the least. He often finds himself in a position where other mfs and full backs have bombed forward, and he can be left relatively isolated in a counter attack. I also believe the whole team have suffered at the significant loss of Santi Cazorla, although that has been going on for some time though to be a meaningful excuse.
    Cazorla provides an outlet for players like Xhaka. We just need a little patience in the player, and as we know our fanbase is full of patience.
    As for arsenal under performing, as you mention, in very relative terms, it is clear there is a changing environment , we do not know the timing or extent of further change, but it could be unsettling for all concerned, including the manager and coaching staff. It is possible we are going through our post Fergie funk while the manager is in place rather than afterwards, all remains to be seen

  2. I recently witnessed Xhaka sprinting (yes, sprinting) back into his penalty area, staying on his feet while making a clean recovery tackle.
    I think this season has seen him play as the midfielder we though we were getting before all the mishaps of his first season. And his range of passing is sublime.
    Long may it continue.

  3. Xhaka can be retained as a first steamer by Arsenal next season and not sold in the summer. But the fact remains Arsenal MUST sign an out and true DM next summer if the Gunners base is not to suffer as it did this season that is nearly finish with 8 PL games left to play and 5 maximum ELC games to go as far as Arsenal FC is concerned.

    Of recent, rumours have been flying in the media that the Man Utd impatient manager to win the PL and the CL Titles for the Red Devils, Jose Mourinho may sell Pual Pogba next summer to fund some incoming transfers he has considered will be productive for Man Utd to win big Titles next season.

    But since one man’s poison could become another man’s food, will Le Boss and Arsenal like to cash in on the likely availability of Pogba next summer to bring him to the Emirates Stadium and stop him from going to PSG? I think Paul Pogba can be signed by Arsenal as a replacement for the injury plagued Santi Cazorla but of a different kind style of play. But not too far from Patrick Vieira’s style of play at Arsenal if I”ve correctly assessed the styles of play of Vieira and Pogba.

    Okay, if in according to my thoughts and believes as to the new 3 top quality players requirement Arsenal should sign next season and offload some Gunners are anything worth considering by Le Boss, I think Arsenal should sign Paul Pogba if he happens to be available for signing next summer to give Arsenal midfield the steel that has been missing at the Gunners midfield base since Patrick Vieira vacated the place in the team.

    And I also think a top striker sign by Arsenal next summer should be the back from the regular goals scoring dead, Mario Balotelli if he becomes available for signing so as to give Le Boss a complete productive 3 striker line options of: Aubameyang, Lacazette and Balotelli.

    And lastly but not the very last as Arsenal might consider signing a new top quality goalkeeper next summer to replace the aging and now error prone Petr Cech. But us the Gooners know that Arsenal MUST sign a top grade CB next summer in the like of Jonny Evans caliber to replace the unfortune long afflicted achilles injured Koscielny if the Gunners are to stop conceding the kind of unpardonable goals they’ve conceded this season in their next season campaign.

    And of course as I’ve mentioned above, Arsenal could sign a top quality goalkeeper next season to enhance their goalkeeping department with an upgrade to the other top quality keepers they have on ground this season. But whether the new signed goalkeeper will be Francis Uzoho of the Nigerian Super Eagles is what I can’t tell.

  4. I really want Xhaka to succeed at Arsenal, but I often wonder if he is ever going to fill the gaping holes that he has in his game? By that I mean the way in which he gives away the ball at least 3 times a game and usually in extremely dangerous positions. There’s also his inability to tackle (not saying that he can’t tackle at all, but he certainly isn’t good at it) and additionally he seems to give away a lot of needless free-kicks (which of course isn’t helped by the PIGMOB).

    Now, for a primarily defensive midfielder, are these not 3 of the worst possible negative attributes that a player in that position can have? We’ve been so shaky defensively this season and I feel that he is definitely partially responsible for this.

    Do the benefits of his short and long range passing outweigh the negatives of how much pressure his mistakes put on our defensive? I’m genuinely not too sure.

  5. Jammy, starting from next season’s campaign if Arsenal midfield has Ozil Pogba Xhaka & Mkhi’ as regular staters starting centrally behind one of: Auba’, Lacazette or Balotelli leading the line and with Ramsey Wilshere, ElNeny as backups, would Arsenal midfield not perform far better than they’ve performed so far deep into this season’s campaign? And 2 of Bellerin, Kolasinac and Maitland playing as attacking/defensive wingbacks. While the defense-line has a new top quality CB injected into it. With all these 3 new top quality players injected into the Arsenal starting XI next summer, don’t you think Jammy, Arsenal could won the PL Title next season and stake a claim at winning the CL next season if Arsenal qualify for the CL nect season by winning the ELC this season?

  6. It’s ok to have a great passing range the art of it is are you able to pick a pass when being pressurised by an opponent
    In all of Arsenal’s successful teams they always had players able to cover the ground by running at opponents with the ball , at the moment I don’t see this in the current team

  7. Xhaka is not alone in looking a better player for his country than for The Arsenal. Look at the videos of Elneny playing for Basle , there is a major factor in their natural games that does not suit Arsenal’s close passing midfield game. When they are off the leash so to speak they introduce a freedoim to their play which is lacking at their club . They spray diagonal passes to players using width , they play one twos and find space because of the speed that they build up with. Here the build up is slow with sometimes five short passes to do what one would have achieved , nice passing stats but not effective. it gives the other team time to organise their proverbial bus parking and because of seemingly unwillingness to get into the box , how many times do we see Bellerin or Kolasinac getting down to the edge of the penalty box and stop and turn back into midfield where eventually the ball finds it’s way back to the defence to start again on the other side.
    It’s the tactics people . Change the way we play and suddenly they will make good.

  8. Tony, when you say “but claim …getting almost 99% accuracy in their decision making”, you should really put an emoji in to show the non-regular readers that you know that’s a ridiculous claim!

  9. I have seen some of these giveaways in the space in front of the box and they look bad. I can’t help but think that many of them seem to be communication problems. Some of the passes are just poorly hit but some are also passes to the wrong space. As for Xhaka. I think he is doing OK. He is playing better this year than last year, IMO and I agree with Mandy Dodd that at times our holding/defensive midfielders get isolated when others stray too far afield. Any player can make others look bad by taking away their options with poor off-ball play.

  10. Off topic. An acquaintance of mine came rushing up to me this morning, “We’re saved, Tuchel is coming to Arsenal!” While I was happy that he was happy for the first time since 2004, I couldn’t help but wonder about his reaction (and his sources). I don’t mean to knock Thomas Tuchel. And, he may well end up at Arsenal. But my soteriological beliefs don’t include Arsenal’s salvation (assuming The Arsenal need saving) nor that this salvation is dependent on any one man.

  11. When making statements like “Most of the stories known today about Arsenal in the period before and after the first world war come from one source: Leslie Knighton” you should add a phrase like “I believe” to show that this is opinion & not fact.

  12. Steve, Jack and Aaron can do that, but it’s not really part of Granits game.

    One of the players that did the exceptionally well was Diaby.
    A great shame he was butchered so badly…

  13. Realist – certainly if it is not a fact then I would write that. But I am not sure who has written more about Leslie Knighton and Henry Norris than myself. To the very best of my knowledge my biography of Norris and his football activities 1910 to 1927 which is appearing day by day on the Arsenal History Society site, and which has now reached episode 90, with over 200,000 words published, is one of only two major works on Norris. The other, an excellent work by Sally Davis, only mentions Knighton in passing. During the course of this work, which is of course continuing day by day, I have quoted from the various sources that comment upon Arsenal in the pre and post war period, and in around 95% of the cases their one source is Knighton.

  14. I’m certain people pass information by word of mouth. Just because you decided to write a book about what you know doesn’t mean you can then say you’re the only one who communicated that information

  15. realist…..why don’t you provide Tony with your sources or other ones that can assist him in solidifying his research?

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