When Granit Xhaka received his marching orders on Sunday afternoon, he became the most sent-off player in Europe’s five ‘biggest’ leagues – La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A, the Bundesliga and the Premier League – since the start of the 2015/2016 season. It represented his fifth red card in that time, and brings to a head the discussion about possible disciplinary problems that had been raised following conceded penalties against Stoke City at home and Bournemouth away. Given these criticisms, it is worth looking back over each of his dismissals and analyzing where he was at fault, what he could have done differently, and whether the decision was correct.
Xhaka’s first red card of the run came as a result of two yellows, in an early-season Bundesliga encounter at Werder Bremen. The then-Moenchengladbach man was ejected from the game when his high boot caught Assani Lukimya-Mulongoti in the face, but more worryingly, given his subsequent experiences in the Arsenal eighteen yard box, this action also conceded a penalty against his team. That Bremen missed the resulting ‘elf meter’ is no consolation; they were already two-one up, and with their extra man comfortably saw out the rest of the game.
Two yellow cards were again the formula against Ingolstadt. The only truly noteworthy thing about Xhaka’s dismissal in the 86th minute was the general perception that he had responded to a strategy of provocation by opponents who were aware of his temperament. His teammate Yann Sommer said after the game that Xhaka, by this time Borussia’s captain, was very emotional and, tellingly, that some warnings may have helped prevent the sending-off.
In December of 2015 Xhaka earned his first straight red card, and he could have no complaints about it. A retaliatory kick out at Darmstadt’s Peter Niemeyer was all that it took, and provided yet more evidence that the Swiss dynamo was prone to shocking lapses of judgement. Niemeyer had been all over him, unquestionably, but to react in such a way let himself and his team down.
Of all the cards dished out to Xhaka, it is the red received against Swansea that bears the most controversy. Wenger, with characteristically florid language, deemed it “a dark yellow, but the referee went for bright red”. Be that as it may, the club did not appeal the decision from John Moss, who would haunt the Arsenal midfielder mere months later. Xhaka had scythed down Modou Barrow as the Swansea player was leading a counter-attack, but as the foul took place in his own half and close to the touchline, it initially did not seem worthy of more than a yellow card.
Finally, his latest enforced removal from the fray. It began with a misplaced pass straight to the opposition, and ended with a lunge – possibly two-footed, possibly airborne, possibly with studs – at the feet of Burnley’s Steven Defour. As with many of Xhaka’s fouls, on first viewing it appeared as though the referee had little option but to reach for the red card, but further replays indicated that the tackle was much less dangerous. A yellow, certainly, but quite a soft dismissal.
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What we can deduce from these five examples is as follows: Granit Xhaka is not a ‘dirty’ player as such. He rarely makes cynical, snide tackles…which is arguably regrettable, as these are often the bread and butter of a top level defensive midfielder. Even Alex Song made the ‘necessary yellow for the team’ into an art form – and he was much less talented than Xhaka. Where our midfield maestro falls down, however, is in his lapses of judgement. Almost all of these dismissals could have been averted with more sensible play; staying on his feet against Swansea, not diving in against Burnley, not lashing out against Darmstadt, keeping his feet on the floor against Bremen… Xhaka’s passion is undoubtedly a crucial part of his game, and to be fair he mostly comports himself in a pretty cool fashion on the pitch, but he must work hard to iron the temperamental creases out. To do this, he needs his manager and teammates to help him – on and off the pitch.