SOCCER

Granit Xhaka reveals Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta’s ‘genius moment in training’

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For all the external questions that have plagued Mikel Arteta during his three and a half years in the Arsenal dugout, one thing that has rarely been questioned is his footballing brain. A graduate of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, player under Arsene Wenger and assistant coach to Pep Guardiola: for more than half his life the 40-year-old has had a foundation in footballing excellence which he now translates into Arsenal players.

Even when they worked for consecutive eighth places, Arsenal players did not waver in their admiration for their manager. Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney both called their head coach a “genius”, while Gabriel Martinelli predicted that his boss will write his name in footballing history thanks to the weight of the trophies. Xhaka Granite is no less in awe of the man who kept him at the club in early 2020. He just has a different, typically brusque way of making his point.

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Arteta is a “monster”, as Xhaka puts it in Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary. It’s said with nothing but admiration, but it probably deserves some degree of expansion.

“I mean [a freak in terms of] how he explains the training sessions to us as well as the game plan,” says Xhaka. “We know exactly what we have to do. Not just the first step but the second and third after, with the ball and without the ball. How we prepare or how he prepares us is amazing. I have never seen anything like this before.

“We had a meeting [a fortnight ago] and he showed us an action against chelsea. I was pressing Jorginho, the starting midfielder and Gabi Martinelli fell for me. So normally Gabi Martinelli is a left winger and the coaches say stick with the right back. Or you must enter. But it falls in number six [position] at the base. That’s what makes Mikel special because he sees something that other coaches don’t in my opinion.”

Unfortunately, Xhaka didn’t elaborate on exact details at the time, but we can estimate which particular passage of the game he was talking about. Arsenal lead 2-0 in their pre-season clash with Chelsea in Orlando, their press stifling the Blues in their own third. The Swiss international, often considered a player who lacks the rhythm to get involved in the final third pressures, is ready and waiting when Marcos Alonso finds himself under pressure from Ben White on Chelsea’s left.

With only one passing option truly available to Alonso, Xhaka follows Jorginho to ensure Chelsea cannot escape danger

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The press is clearly a challenge for Chelsea, but the space Xhaka has freed up could open up opportunities for the Blues as well. If Jorginho can get away from his man and turn, he might be able to slip a pass through Arsenal’s midfield. Martinelli notices this and, as Xhaka noted above, reacts to the threat rather than just doing what’s expected of a player in his place.

If Jorginho wants to extend the ball into the space on the right that Martinelli has cleared, then Eddie Nketiah is well placed to punish any error. Either way, if the Italian does get that pass, it still puts Chelsea in a much less dangerous position than if they were able to slip a pass through the middle and down the field.

Martinelli moves onto the pitch to fill the space Xhaka vacated as Arsenal tighten on Chelsea

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A little too much exuberance from Xhaka – or perhaps a good eye for his opponent’s safest escape route – offers Chelsea a free-kick, but up to this point Arsenal had done everything to steal the ball in the most dangerous positions. .

It’s far from the only example Arsenal players can think of of an occasion where Arteta saw something few others do. Sitting alongside Xhaka during a discussion about the documentary, by Aaron Ramsdale the mind is quickly drawn to a much more high-profile moment, the move back to the front in December last year when the Gunners attracted from Southampton press it and rip it in seconds.

A pass from Gabriel to Ramsdale sparks a high-energy press from Southampton, but Arsenal’s back six have the confidence to play there

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It was the kind of goal that great Arsenal sides of the past, especially Arsene Wenger’s sides leading the Invincibles, were proud of. With 19 minutes and 57 seconds on the clock, Gabriel’s back pass sparked Southampton’s press on Ramsdale. When the scoreboard shows 20 minutes and 13 seconds Alexandre Lacazette sweeps the ball into the net, five pressure passes into their own half spinning the pressers on their heels, helpless to catch up as the Gunners flew towards the penalty area.

Takehiro Tomiyasu gives and accompanies Martin Odegaard to move away and forward in Southampton’s half. Meanwhile, visiting forwards and midfielders were dropped from the game

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That goal, and the dominating performance he produced, was all the more impressive as Arsenal had been forced to tear up their tactical plan when the squad sheets landed an hour before kick-off. “All week we worked on a press because I think they were supposed to play a three at the back,” Ramsdale explains. “But when we walked into the dressing room they were playing a 4-2-2-2 and Mikel changed it and said the forwards would jump and the next wingers, full-backs etc.

“He had the plan ready for us, told us 45 minutes before kick-off, and what he said was perfect.”

The admiration Arsenal players feel for their manager might even lead them to follow in his footsteps. Xhaka has started his coaching badges – “I told Mikel to be careful,” he laughs – although at 29 he is in no rush to call him a day at Arsenal. “It’s a shame that I only have two years left on my contract. Let’s see what happens after two years. But I see a big, big future for this club.”

Such an optimistic outlook on life at Arsenal would have been unimaginable three-and-a-half years when Arteta arrived and Xhaka was, as he puts it, ‘finished’ at Arsenal. He had been dismissed as captain after he insulted supporters following his substitution in a 2-2 draw with crystal palace. The bridge to the Emirates Stadium was burned, Hertha Berlin were on the verge of bringing the Swiss international back to the Bundesliga. The new director changed all that. After a conversation, Xhaka decided – without even discussing it further with his family – to grant Arteta the six months he had requested.

“He’s the reason I’m still at this football club,” says Xhaka. “The whole club knows why I’m still here, because three years ago I left. My bags were packed and done, but I had a meeting with Mikel when he came – he wanted to hear my opinion on what had happened and I explained to him.

“I remember exactly: I told him ‘It has nothing to do with you’ because I didn’t know him and I never played with him. Obviously I knew his name but not the person and I said ‘I’m gone, I can’t wear the shirt anymore. He said, ‘Give me a chance for six months and if you’re still unhappy after six months, I’m the one to help you – not to run away, but you can leave.

“I haven’t spoken with my family, with anyone, and normally I don’t do that. But I said, ‘OK, Mikel, I’ll stay for you.’ And I’m still here.” There may be some Arsenal supporters who would rather he wasn’t here yet, but it’s fair to say that number has gone down since Arteta brought him back into the fray. Xhaka hasn’t been perfect and still has a temperamental streak that can earn him red cards at inopportune times, although he can also note that he seems to be refereed by reputation as much as action.

If there was a moment that felt like the reverse of the rage at Crystal Palace, it could have been last season’s crush against Manchester United. Celebrating his spectacular strike, he blew kisses that may have been in the direction of his family box, but felt like they were for the entire Emirates Stadium. “It was perhaps one of the greatest moments since signing for this club,” he says. “Everyone now knows what happened three years ago. Sitting here three years later and to say that was one of the greatest moments, three years ago, I would have said that would never, ever happen.

“But I feel a lot more love from the fans, from my side too. I’m trying to build something with them again. It takes time, for sure, but I feel that we We’re on the right track, that’s for sure.”

It’s not just the fans. As Xhaka is asked to discuss his role as captain without an armband, Ramsdale chimes in: “He’s an integral part of our squad whether he plays or not. When he got injured at the start of last season, you could feel his presence in the locker room. You can feel his presence when he plays.

“I think the captaincy is overkill. It comes from what’s happened here with a few captains over the past few years. But then you have people like Rob holding, another who, when he’s not playing, is someone everyone talks to. You have leaders who just do it on the pitch.

“We had a few arguments on the pitch, me and Granit, but one type of person who can be a great leader is someone who forgets about it when you walk into the dressing room. He will have different ways of talking to different people. It gets the best of me and him together when we have a little argument. We go back to the locker room and everything is fine.

Arsenal doubters will point out that not all of this leadership talk translated into the Gunners leading the way in the Premier League or even reaching the Champions League. They may well be right, but hearing the players lay out the reality of this club under their current leadership is compelling indeed. The same trick Arteta did to Xhaka works in the locker room.

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