Granit Xhaka 20 Midfielder Borussia Mönchengladbach
It’s rare that you’ll see a player admitting to purposely messing up a goal scoring opportunity for his team. It is not a reaction we’d expect of normal players but then again, Granit Xhaka is not a normal case. The then 19 year-old posted on his Facebook page in the wake of Switzerland’s 2-0 victory over Albania in September that he meant to miss a sitter for the Swiss.
Having arrived late into the area, Xhaka was presented with a glorious goal scoring opportunity. Unfortunately and uncharacteristically, his touch let him down in a big way and the Albania ‘keeper tidied up. Following the match, Xhaka declared that he feels “completely Albanian” and his touch was an act of pure sabotage.
Of course, Granit Xhaka is no normal footballer; in playing style or upbringing. In the 1990s, his Albanian family fled Kosovo for the safety of Switzerland where Granit and his brother Taulant grew up. They were forced out due to the Yugoslavian civil war and it’s clear that despite being a full Swiss international and already a regular starter for the national team, Xhaka hasn’t associated himself fully with the country that he learned to play football in.
We suspect that when a member of the Swiss Football Association heard about the post, they shrugged their shoulders and carried on about their day. The Swiss national team is awash with players hailing from different countries. The national federation has tried to make the most of the ethnic diversity in the country over recent years and it is paying off. Xhaka plays alongside the likes of Johan Djourou, Timm Klose, Gelson Fernandes, Valon Behrami and Xherdan Shaqiri. They all represent Switzerland without being born in the country.
Praise for Xhaka started at a young age as he played his way through the FC Basel youth ranks. In 2007 at the tender of age of 15, he was already part of Basel’s under-21 squad. At the age of 17 he was a fully-fledged member of their first team squad and well on his way to impressing many in European football.
Last season, Xhaka enhanced his growing reputation by helping Basel to a string of memorable Champions League results. Those nights included a victory over Manchester United that saw the English giants slipping out of Europe’s premier competition and into the Europa League. Xhaka’s control over the midfield on that night was a highlight even if others in the Basel team drew the headlines by scoring the all-important goals.
Earlier this year when Basel were drawn against Bayern Munich in the Champions League knock-out stages, much of the pre-match conversation centred around Xherdan Shaqiri who had by that stage agreed his move from the Swiss club to the German juggernaut. Former Basel coach and now Hamburg boss Thorsten Fink quickly set matters straight in the build-up when he said; “Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland… after Granit Xhaka.” There was a little part of him making such a compliment as he had hopes on bringing Xhaka to Hamburg but there were few who dared to disagree with him. Sadly for Fink, the flattery didn’t work and the youngster elected for an €8.5 million move to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer.
As a direct replacement for Roman Neustädter who departed for Schalke on a free in July, Gladbach have got themselves a better player in Xhaka. Naturally left-footed, Xhaka likes to operate in a dynamic role from defensive midfield. He drives his team forward as much as possible rather simply collecting the ball and laying off to others.
Xhaka’s fine defensive skills and imposing frame did see him utilised at centre-back in the early days of his career but there is little doubting that in the centre of midfield, breaking up play and setting another attack in motion, lies his best position.
As well as having a comfortable reasoning of the game, Xhaka is a clean, accurate tackler and wonderful passer of the ball. Occasionally he does attempt the outrageous instead the practical but his decision making will improve with time. Such are his abundance of skills that it didn’t take long for the Swiss manager Ottmar Hitzfeld to label him as the “young Schweinsteiger” and since his move to Germany, that nickname has cropped up more and more.
So far for Gladbach this season, Xhaka has been steady. Following the departure of Neustädter, Dante and Marco Reus in the summer, Lucien Favre did something of a rebuilding job with his squad. It’s taking the team a little while to get used to each other which is why they currently boast a record of four wins, four draws and four defeats from their 12 league games. Granit has been solid, steadily finding his feet in a new team and in the new league, while showing glimpses of his incredible potential.
At only 20, Xhaka has at least five years before he’ll be expected to be close to his best. He has time to mature, work on a couple of weak areas and make himself into a one-man midfield engine room. One of the main slights about the “old” Bastian Schweinsteiger is that he usually needs a defensive presence alongside him in midfield to function properly. Xhaka has enough ability to do both jobs.
"Despite initially struggling to fill the boots of the recently departed Roman Neustadter, Granit is well regarded as the future hub of any side the Foals hope to build towards in the future. At Gladbach, more than any club in the Bundesliga, the young Swiss international will receive the care and patience to develop his game in harmony. One for the future,without doubt." - Stefan Bienkowski (FourFourTwo, New York Times)
“Quietly getting on with business. Unshowy, unflashy and settling nicely into the Bundesliga.” - John Dobson (European Football Correspondent)
C+ Starting to realise how good he can be