May 23, 2018 / 2:12 PM / 7 months ago

Swiss playmaker Xhaka still a conundrum

BERN (Reuters) - A superb reader of the game with outstanding anticipation and incisive passing, or a liability whose reckless tackling and poor defensive positioning cost his team goals?

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup - Switzerland Training - Freienbach, Switzerland - May 23, 2018 - Switzerland player Granit Xhaka. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Few players seem to polarize opinion as much as Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka.

Playing for his club Arsenal, Xhaka was second in the Premier League table for completed passes this season with 2,899 up to and including the defeat to Manchester United on April 29. He was also 16th for the number of tackles, with 72.

Xhaka’s admirers would say that those statistics are the hallmark of an all-rounder, a player who gets attacks going while also protecting his backline.

He critics argue that he does neither job well.

Part of Xhaka’s problem at Arsenal may be that he plays in a similar position to Patrick Vieira, therefore inviting comparisons with the Frenchman who dominated their midfield with his crunching tackles during Arsene Wenger’s halcyon days.

Playing for Switzerland, he does not have to live up to any such comparisons.

An ethnic Albanian, Xhaka was born in Basel to Kosovar parents who emigrated from the former Yugoslavia after his father Ragip spent three-and-a-half years as a political prisoner.

Intensely proud of his heritage, he supported Kosovo’s successful bid for FIFA membership and at one point contemplated playing for them.

His brother Taulant plays for Albania and the two were on opposite sides when their teams met at Euro 2016.

Earlier in his international career, Xhaka played in a more attacking position behind the front line but was moved back after captain Gokhan Inler dropped out of the side and now performs a similar role to the one he does at Arsenal.

His makes the midfield tick, sometimes using short passes to slow down the game and relieve the pressure and, at others, opening up opposing defenses with probing, long-range balls.

Under less pressure than when playing for Arsenal, he could flourish in Russia as long as he can keep a lid on the volatile streak which has already seen him sent off 11 times in his career.

Additional reporting by Hugh Lawson; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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