Is Granit Xhaka a bad player? If one were to judge the Switzerland and Arsenal bulldozer by the measure of availability, then surely, the verdict would not be a good one. Though he is not quite as adept as, say, Sergio Ramos at racking up red cards, Xhaka has a well-earned reputation for receiving his marching orders in important matches for his club. Put another way, let’s just say that it was not surprising to see him karate kick Diogo Jota during Arsenal’s League Cup semifinal match against Liverpool on Thursday.
That foul was a precious rarity, especially in the time of VAR: a red card so clear and obvious that not even the staunchest of Arsenal fans could mount any real counter-argument. It probably helped the bitter pill go down that 10-man Arsenal proceeded to put on one of the best defensive performances of the season, holding Liverpool—at home, though without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané—to just a single shot on target and no good scoring opportunities in 70 Xhaka-less minutes. (That Ben White sure is good!) In a fatalistic sort of way, Xhaka helped by getting sent off so early, forcing Arsenal to lock in on doing one thing and one thing only: keeping Liverpool off the scoresheet.
Nevertheless, Xhaka’s tendency to go buckwild on the pitch has to be maddening, in part because his positive talents make him a good and important cog in the Arsenal machine. He’s likely Arsenal’s best midfielder when he’s not inventing new ways to get booked, a possession machine who works especially well with Kieran Tierney on the left side of Mikel Arteta’s scheme. Xhaka is second on the team in passes per game this season, second in long balls per game by a midfielder, and is averaging nearly one key pass per outing. He isn’t the star, but what he can do is recycle possession, keep Arsenal on the front foot, and trust that his defensive shortcomings will be covered by his midfield partner.
Is that worth all of the red cards? It might be. Xhaka now has five straight reds in his career at Arsenal, which began in 2016. In those five games—four in the Premier League plus and Thursday’s League Cup sending off—Arsenal has won two matches, lost two, and drawn against Liverpool.
One of those losses came after Xhaka got a red card while down 2–0 to Manchester City, so it’s safe to say that he did not cost the club points then. The only time a Xhaka red card led directly to a loss for Arsenal was in December 2020, when a 56th-minute sending-off in a 0–0 draw against Burnley preceded Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 73rd-minute own goal. Could Xhaka’s presence have prevented an own goal by a striker? Probably not! So, while it’s fun to mock his uncanny ability to do the exact wrong thing at the wrong time, Xhaka has been more of a positive throughout his career in North London than one might think. He also seems to buckle down mentally upon receiving one of his many, many yellow cards; somehow, Xhaka has never been sent off for a second yellow at Arsenal.
Ultimately, Thursday’s red, because of how his teammates made sure it wasn’t too impactful, will be just another blip for the Swiss midfielder who gives Arsenal more than he takes: a whirlwind of activity, simultaneously controlling games and providing some dynamism on his ventures forward. If there was any doubt whether Xhaka is a good player, his performance at the 2021 Euros for Switzerland should have quashed it. His performance against France in Switzerland’s stunning 3–3 penalty shootout victory was among the best in the entire tournament, and his absence—due to accumulated yellow cards, naturally—in the quarterfinal against Spain was dearly felt.
It’s hard to tell sometimes which Xhaka will appear in a big match, and perhaps it’s better that Arsenal won’t have to worry about him possibly getting sent off again in the return leg against Liverpool, a match he’ll be suspended for due to Thursday’s martial arts exhibition. On the other hand, the Gunners will surely miss the Good Xhaka, were he to have shown up. Ironically, Xhaka, who is often out of control, is at his best when he is in control of his team’s play, and Arsenal is at its highest potential when he’s on the field.