The similarities are plentiful between Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka: Both were brought in during the 2016 summer transfer window with high price tags. Both play in key central areas that constitute the spine of the team. And both have excellent vision on the pitch and display an above-average ability to pick a long pass.
The similarities also continue as both have a rash challenge in their locker from time to time as well as the propensity to go to ground. This occasional rush of blood to the head makes Mustafi and Xhaka lightning rods for criticism amongst the Arsenal fanbase and easy targets when times get tough.
It’s these big, momentum-changing moments that resonate with many simply due to the inherent human condition to cling to powerful, negative memories rather than positive ones. It’s why we perceive certain referees as being “against us” due to controversial past decisions. It’s why we reflect on the points lost at the end of the season, rather than points earned. It’s why we feel most pundits have an anti-Arsenal agenda.
The sample size is now large enough to truly measure the importance of Xhaka and Mustafi, both quantitatively and qualitatively to this Arsenal side. Like with all players, they shouldn’t be immune to criticism when making a costly error, but each’s contribution to the overall team dynamic is massive and it’s time they get their praise.
The Case for Mustafi
We all know the stats going around this week: 1) In 8 games this season with Mustafi, Arsenal has conceded 1 goal. 2) With Mustafi as the central CB paired with Koscielny and Monreal, Arsenal has yet to concede in all 6 games together. Now let’s dig a little deeper:
During the ‘16-’17 season:
- With Mustafi: 26 matches, 16-5-5, 62% wins
- Without Mustafi: 12 matches, 7-1-4, 58% wins
- Mustafi was third on the team in clearances (5.0 p/g) and first in aerials won (3.9 p/g)
During the ‘17-’18 season:
- With Mustafi: 8 matches, 1 goal allowed, 6-1-1, 75% wins
- Without Mustafi: 6 matches, 15 goals allowed, 3-0-3, 50% wins
- Mustafi is first on the team in clearances (6.8 p/g) and aerials won (4.1 p/g)
Mustafi is the dominant personality the Arsenal defense so desperately needs. From last season to this season it is evident that he is a better fit for our back 3 system and has acclimated to Premier League play.
While Koscielny and Monreal’s games are full of nuance and high in interceptions, Mustafi’s is predicated on aggression and confrontation. His clearance and aerial duels won data show his prowess in keeping the ball out of our danger area. His ability to win aerials, especially given his below average size for a CB, is particularly impressive:
While not as proficient as Monreal and Koscielny at interceptions and pressing opponents when the ball is played to feet, he still does well. Below is his intervention leading to our second goal against Huddersfield:
The Case for Xhaka
Granit Xhaka doesn’t boast impressive stat lines. He’ll never lead the team in goals, assists, chances created, etc. His game is predicated on building play and transitioning through the thirds as a deep-lying midfielder.
During the ‘16-’17 season:
- Averaged 5.7 successful long passes per game (second was Holding at 2.8)
- 89.5% pass accuracy (second only to Elneny’s 92.9%)
During the ‘17-’18 season:
- Averaging 5.9 successful long passes per game (in second place is Koscielny at 4.8)
- 84.2% pass accuracy (eighth in team)
Arsenal is making an attempt to play more direct and expansively this season and Xhaka is at the heart of this stylistic shift. His range of passing and cross-field diagonals opens up the center of the pitch for our front 3 as well as Ramsey to make his third man runs. Quite simply, he opens up play for playmakers to create within.
I feel his pass completion rate is down so significantly and his long passes are up is due to more risks being taken. Sure he still needs to move the ball a bit quicker and develop his right foot but he is the quarterback of our offense.
Let’s rewind back about 2 months. We’re coming off a shaky, far from convincing victory over West Brom. One of the main talking points is Mustafi’s reckless challenge on Jay Rodriguez that should have led to a first half penalty. This drove the narrative in many blogs, podcasts, and papers in subsequent weeks about how he wasn’t good enough for Arsenal. Since his return from injury, he has done well to prove critics wrong.
Xhaka’s giveaway leading to the Stoke winner in August is when widespread criticism ramped up. Given his lower pass accuracy and a few ugly passes that resonate, he still has a point to prove to many Gooners. I am confident that, like Mustafi, his quality will come through and he will prove his essentials to the wider fanbase. In summary, it’s time for many to back the f*ck off these players and appreciate their important roles within the team.
Follow me on Twitter @dfresh10
31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.