While Victor Boniface, Florian Wirtz and Jonas Hofmann have stolen the headlines this campaign, Granit Xhaka’s arrival from Arsenal is a key factor in Bayer Leverkusen’s rise to title challengers. Let’s take a closer look at Die Werkself’s unsung hero…
Xabi Alonso’s appointment last October has helped rejuvenate the club but, although there was a significant improvement as Leverkusen recovered from second-bottom in the table to secure UEFA Europa League qualification, the Spaniard needed a midfield leader to fully implement his vision.
Having won two UEFA Champions Leagues, four league titles – including three Bundesligas – and a FIFA World Cup while patrolling the middle of the park, it is fair to say Alonso knows a thing or two about composed technicians who are able to control games. Therefore, his desire to bring Xhaka to North-Rhine Westphalia is a testament to the Switzerland international’s ability.
During the first few weeks of his Leverkusen career, the 31-year-old has had a telling impact. Bayer has climbed to the summit of the German top flight after seven games this term while going unbeaten in all competitions – Xhaka has started all 10 matches.
His experience has proved vital in what is a squad full of youthful talent – he is the third-oldest player at Alonso’s disposal – and it is no coincidence that the team have dominated from start to finish almost every time they have stepped onto the field.
Close to everything goes through the former Borussia Mönchengladbach ace. Only Bayern Munich’s Min-Jae Kim has amassed more touches in the Bundesliga than Xhaka (738), while the 50.5 miles (81.3 kilometres) he’s covered this term is the highest among his teammates.
He has also completed 93.4 per cent of his attempted passes, the fourth-highest league-wide and, on top of that, has won 52 per cent of his contested duels, showing he is not just adept with the ball at his feet. He has still yet to find the back of the net himself or provide an assist in the league, but his contribution clearly goes far beyond that.
Unsurprisingly, the praise has been effusive. “He has had a huge impact on the team since day one. He is an extremely important player for us”, said Alonso following Leverkusen’s 2-2 draw with Bayern on Matchday 4. “If you have good midfielders, you play better.”
Sporting director Simon Rolfes, who played himself alongside midfield stars such as Michael Ballack, Arturo Vidal and Toni Kroos during a 10-year Leverkusen career, added: “I’m very satisfied with his performances. He is an exceptional player, he keeps the pace for our team and has an indisputable personality in the team, on and off the field. He always goes ahead with the character he has. We are very happy.”
Despite his obvious vision and technique, it is perhaps that character that is among Xhaka’s strongest traits. He can often be seen interacting with teammates during games, organising the side’s structure and providing encouragement when necessary – his influence on central partner Exequiel Palacios, in particular, has helped the Argentine grow into a role in which he previously struggled to find consistency.
Admittedly, the ex-Basel man occasionally oversteps the mark – he has received 12 red cards throughout his career, five of which came in the Bundesliga during his spell at Gladbach – but, now blessed with the wisdom that comes with age, he offers a far more balanced presence.
All in all, Xhaka is arguably the defining figure of this Leverkusen side, and if they are to truly threaten Bayern’s 11-year reign as champions, the No.34 will no doubt play a starring role.