What Granit Xhaka did for Arsenal’s attacking players as Mikel Arteta faces crucial decision

Arsene Wenger,Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta all have one thing in common with eachother.

Other than the obvious fact that they’ve all coached Arsenal, each one of them has persisted with Granit Xhaka in the team.

There are many reasons why Xhaka is respected and well liked by his teammates an coaches alike – his professionalism, loyalty and attitude are just a few of the qualities that have endeared him to many.

“It’s a joy to work with him because if you ask him to play as a centre forward, his first reaction is ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do it and I will do my best’,” said Arteta in a recent press conference.

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Against Newcastle there were early warning signings with winger Allan Saint-Maximin coming up against the former Borussia Monchengladbach captain.

Saint-Maximin is regarded by many as one of the most exciting wingers in the Premier League, and he offered a similar threat posed by Villarreal star Samuel Chukwueze in the Europa League semi-final first leg last week.

Xhaka’s proactive attitude and ability to cover at left-back helped get the best out of Gabriel Martinelli during Arsenal’s 2-0 win against Newcastle at St James’ Park.

“Having Granit [Xhaka] behind him helps him in a way because he’s more in the line on the left where he is comfortable,” said Arteta after the game.

“With Kieran [Tierney] it’s a little bit different. If there are any doubts, I love Gabi so much. Much more than all of you together!”

Those comments from Arteta were particularly telling – at a time where he has been criticised by fans and pundits for not giving as many opportunities to Martinelli as the Brazilian forward would have liked.

Tierney’s link-up play with Martinelli during their first season together saw the duo gel and combine well on the left hand side.

“When I first did a full training session with the team I was put up against him and the intensity of his play was honestly mindblowing and I thought to myself this is the standard I need to be at to play for Arsenal,” Tierney said in a Reddit AMA last year.

Kieran Tierney is a big fan of Gabriel Martinelli (Image: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“I think his hunger and drive and his talent together at one is more than enough to be a world class player for many years.”

football.londonreported in March that Martinelli has been taking individual sessions – a non-compulsory option – to improve his shooting with Arteta holding the view that he has the potential to play as a centre forward in the long-term.

The other explanation as to why Arteta has been reluctant to use Martinelli in every game can also be put down to the type of opposition Arsenal face.

Xhaka, who had a 91 per cent pass accuracy rate against Steve Bruce’s side, held his position well on Sunday, and his ball retention gave Martinelli the freedom to take on players without having to worry about the Swiss making an overlapping run.

And that would further explain Arteta’s persistence with Emile Smith Rowe over someone like Martinelli.

Smith Rowe is highly adept at retaining possession, rarely taking big risks and able to distribute the ball quickly.

However, there can be no doubt that Martinelli offers something no other Arsenal player has and that’s why supporters are so excited to see his name on the teamsheet.

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As Arteta approaches the summer transfer window with one eye on strengthening the fullback areas, it is testament to Xhaka that he continues to get picked over a more natural defender in Cedric Soares.

For Martinelli, it continues to be a waiting game as Arteta drip-feeds him game time dependent on the right time and right place – with another selection headache approaching as the Gunners face a crucial European semi-final second leg against Villarreal on Thursday.

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