bundesliga

Granit Xhaka: The unsung key to Xabi Alonso's title challenge with Bayer Leverkusen

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Granit Xhaka has emerged as the beating heart of Bayer Leverkusen’s team. Everything goes through the midfielder, who has Die Werkself ticking like a Swiss watch in the same way that coach Xabi Alonso once did in his playing days. bundesliga.com analyses how Xhaka has helped turn Leverkusen into favourites for the title in Germany.

Xhaka’s importance to this Werkself team was demonstrated once again last Thursday. Alonso opted not to field his main man from the start in the UEFA Europa League in Azerbaijan, and his side found themselves 2-0 down at the break. Xhaka was introduced in the 58th minute, and within half an hour Leverkusen had levelled to set things up nicely for the return leg.

The Swiss midfielder’s playing time in the Bundesliga alone shows just how highly Alonso values him. The 31-year-old has started all 25 league fixtures to date, and only been substituted off on the occasions where the game was done and dusted. Xhaka has made his mark on the team from the moment he joined in the summer from Arsenal. But what exactly has he brought to Leverkusen?

Watch: The best of Xhaka with Leverkusen

Always available

Any time a Bayer player is unsure what to do with the ball, he has one simple option: pass it to Granit. When Leverkusen have the ball, the central midfielder is always on the move, head on a swivel, forever out of reach from the opposition. Even when opponents try to man-mark him, Xhaka can always find gaps with quick passes that release his teammates.

Switzerland’s captain and most capped player actually likes to be at the heart of the opposition’s covering triangle. It has a big advantage in that he draws attention to himself once the ball comes into him, therefore opening up several options to pass it on to free teammates.

Xhaka is always open to receive the ball, and Leverkusen play through him more than any other player in the entire Bundesliga. He’s had 2,893 touches of the ball over the first 25 matchdays, which is some 600 more than the next best player in the division, VfB Stuttgart's Waldemar Anton (2,252).

Granit Xhaka always offers himself for a pass, and likes to move within an opposition covering triangle. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Xhaka loves to feel the pressure

If you receive the ball a lot, then you also need to know how to move it on. Xhaka is again the master here, with a division-leading 2,573 passes – way out ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s Nico Schlotterbeck in second (1,945). Note as well that Schlotterbeck and the aforementioned Anton are centre-backs, sitting deep. Xhaka does all this in the centre of the pitch.

The midfielder’s completion rate in terms of distribution is also an outstanding 93 percent. Only a few central defenders can beat that, but do so under less opposition pressure. Xhaka tops the Bundesliga for pass efficiency at +83.0, which means he has found a teammate 83 times more than statistically expected given the difficulty of his passes.

He doesn’t just do the easy stuff, though. He’s cool under pressure like few others in football, and was the missing piece at the heart of Leverkusen’s play who’s capable of dealing with the strong pressing game seen in Germany.

"Bayer 04 signed me to stabilise this young team,” Xhaka said in his first interview with his new club’s official media last summer. “I’ll try and do that on every level, also mentally. I don’t want to play dad or the boss. But everyone must be clear that you have to work hard to be successful.”

Xhaka has formed a partnership in midfield with Exequiel Palacios and helped improve the Argentine World Cup winner. - IMAGO/Moritz Mueller

He’s been true to his word there. Last season Leverkusen had the duo of Exequiel Palacios and Robert Andrich in the centre, with both boasting escape rates (how often they are able to retain possession for their team when pressurised) of 63 and 62 percent respectively. The pair have now stepped that up to 72 and 73 percent respectively this term, thanks to the fact that they have Xhaka alongside them as a constant outlet.

We took a closer look at Alonso’s envious Plan B in 2024

The former Borussia Mönchengladbach man boasts an excellent escape rate himself of 79 percent – no shock to hear that that is the highest in the division. Again, we come back to those triangles that he moves in, which increase pressure with three opponents in proximity. Only Florian Wirtz and Chris Führich have found themselves pressurised more often in the Bundesliga in 2023/24, but they both play in more attacking roles.

Xhaka is shadowed by three opponents but remains an outlet as the third man. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Available doesn’t always mean a direct pass

Despite all that, it isn’t always possible to play the ball directly to Xhaka. Clever opponents will shadow him when they look to press his teammates. The Switzerland international will then try and move into an area behind the pressing player. That doesn’t always work, like one time against Bayern Munich when two players in Harry Kane and Sacha Boey covered the potential pass.

But this is where the most important tactical aspect of Alonso’s system comes into play. The so-called ‘third-man passes’, which means playing the ball via an intermediary. Leverkusen will often look to pass around corners. Again, this is down to Xhaka’s clever positioning, moving between opponents so he can be found. For example below, against Bayern, Josip Stanišić plays the ball forward to Nathan Tella. He lays it off to Xhaka, who recognises that Bayern’s pressing of the ball has opened up space. He quickly lays it off to Piero Hincapié and the attack progresses. One ball later and Wirtz was one-on-one with Manuel Neuer.

Xhaka sends Patrik Schick away with a ball over the top. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

The full repertoire

The sight of Xhaka with the ball at his feet will always set alarm bells ringing for the opposition. He’s about far more than just moving the ball on, like to Hincapié against Bayern. The Swiss midfielder can play pretty much any type of pass, including those over the top, like when he set Patrik Schick away against Augsburg, only for the striker to come up short against Finn Dahmen.

There’s also his excellent creativity on the edge of the box. He’s able to chip the ball over the back line, like he did for Wirtz against Wolfsburg when he hit the post. Remarkably, none of his superb setups have actually resulted in a goal and he is yet to register an assist in the Bundesliga this season. But with 36 passes to a shot, that lack of finish is not his fault. A maiden assist is only a matter of time, like his debut goal was when it came against Mainz on Matchday 23 – one of 28 shots he has attempted this term.

It's as the man who plays the assist to the assister that he really shines. Only Jamal Musiala boasts more ‘second assists’ than Xhaka, who, for example, created Wirtz’s goal against Stuttgart with his through ball to Victor Boniface. Or his lofted pass on Matchday 3 to Alejandro Grimaldo to head into the path of Boniface to score.

Xhaka chipped the ball in behind the Wolfsburg defence for Florian Wirtz. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

The transition and closing gaps

Yet it isn’t only in possession where the Swiss metronome has proven himself a priceless asset. He’s instilled greater stability in this Leverkusen team when defending transitions. His reading of the game allows him to spot a potential counter and close the gap early.

It’s his understanding of the play that has seen the Werkself remain solid with four men covering in many situations instead of the 3-2 or 2-3 covering of five defenders that many clubs use to shore up. It’s allowed midfield partner Palacios the freedom to be more involved in attack.

We saw another prime example of that on Matchday 25. First, he was the creator in midfield with a pass into Wirtz in the half space. His attempt to play it on wasn’t successful, and immediately Xhaka cut off the space to Wolfsburg striker Kevin Behrens, making him unavailable for a potential transition.

When Tiago Tomás then brought the ball forward up the inside left, Xhaka moved away from the striker to press Tomás, still keeping Behrens covered, and dispossess the Wolfsburg forward. He saw the danger and nipped it in the bud quickly. A challenge success rate of 53 percent demonstrates how he regularly cuts out opposition moves forward through his territory in midfield.

From playmaker to ball-winner, Xhaka quickly cut out a potential Wolfsburg break. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Granit Xhaka: Xabi Alonso 2.0

Xhaka’s influence on play will make his coach, in particular, very happy. That’s not just because Alonso and his team are benefiting hugely as a result, but because he’ll see a lot of himself as a player in how Xhaka goes about things on the pitch.

In his playing days, Alonso would often drop deeper between centre-backs and dictate play from there, but that was down to how his teams played. If Xhaka was asked to do the same, he would do it to the same exceptional standard.

And it’s, therefore, no surprise to hear that the pair are similar on the touchline. Xhaka is currently working towards his UEFA A Licence at Union Nettetal, around an hour away from Leverkusen. His training sessions are very much reminiscent of how Alonso instructs his Werkself team.

Watch: Xhaka the coach

Although Xhaka probably doesn’t have any intentions of following Alonso into a Bundesliga dugout just yet, there’s huge similarities in how they work on the pitch. And it’s now as a player-coach duo that they have come together in perfect harmony to lead Leverkusen to the verge of (at the very least) the Bundesliga title.

Niklas Staiger