There are still a few days remaining in March but for Arsenal, the month’s work was wrapped up almost 2 weeks ago on the 15th after dispatching Milan comfortably in the second leg of their Europa League last 16 clash. It was not the prettiest month of football that fans have ever been treated to, but considering how it began, the team did well to recover their form and avoid watching their whole season collapse before Easter. The Gunners finished 3-2 in all competitions in March, but back to back Premier League losses to Manchester City and Brighton to start the month had fans reeling, players confronting a crisis of confidence, and the now familiar calls for Arsene Wenger’s job reaching a fever pitch.
As might be expected in a month of such peaks and valleys, choosing the Arsenal Player of the Month is no easy task. Shkodran Mustafi, who was vilified for his colossal error in the Carabao Cup final to close out February, recovered well as March progressed, putting in astute defensive displays in both legs against Milan and the Watford match sandwiched in between. His goal against Watford was a typical Mustafi goal, coming from a free kick to the left of the goal, where he out-jumped his marker to nod the ball home. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was phenomenal in the first leg against Milan and with his goal and assist against Watford, but he was nearly invisible against Manchester City and Brighton, where he looked timid and easy to muscle off the ball. He recovered to have an excellent second half to the month, but a lack of consistency keeps him out of the top spot.
Ditto for Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin, who despite giving excellent effort in every match they played, were disqualified from the conversation due to missing time through injury. Mesut Ozil was his usual, classy self, but he was unspectacular in the month of March compared to his very best form. In this case, he is undone by his quality and typical high standards. Finally, as the last of the runners-up, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang warrants a mention for his goals in 2 of his 3 matches played, but missing out on the Europa League means he was not a consistent enough presence to take the honours.
So who does that leave? Nacho Monreal may be some supporters’ pick as Player of the Season, but his form has tailed off in the last month and a half. Danny Welbeck has given the maximum effort in his appearances, but no Gooner in their right mind would bestow him with the prize. Come to think, however, most supporters wouldn’t pick the player I have in mind anyway, because that man is Granit Xhaka.
There are few players that catch more grief for their performance than the Swiss international, but Granit Xhaka is the only player in the team that fought tooth and claw for every minute of every match the Gunners played this month. Even in the shambolic 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, where no player covered themselves with glory, Xhaka played like a man who was willing his teammates to fight on, getting stuck into challenges long after the victor was decided. In the next loss against Brighton, he was as impressive as a player can be in a match where his team lost to a lesser opponent. As the minutes ticked away and the fans, the commentators, even Brighton were waiting for the attacking threat that would never come from a hapless Arsenal team, Xhaka was there in the centre of the park, fighting on. He led the whole team in defensive actions, including 7 interceptions, to add to his assist for Aubameyang’s goal.
As the Gunners turned around their tepid form against Milan, Xhaka’s good form continued. Across both legs against the Italian giants, Xhaka completed 148/156 passes he attempted, adding a goal to his tally in the second leg with one of his trademark howitzer blasts from outside the area. Flanked by Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in an active midfield trio, Xhaka has persisted as the eye of Arsenal’s attacking storm, with so much of what the Gunners do in buildup play reliant on Xhaka’s metronomic talents. He completes more long passes than any of his teammates, and his ability to reliably alternate between spraying the ball long to his widemen and moving it on quickly into the feet of his more mobile midfield partners adds variance to the Arsenal attack.
As solid as his statistics have been this month, particularly his passing, they are not the only reason for his selection as Player of the Month. Supporters are ruthless in their critique of the midfield man, as many focus on how he isn’t the player they thought he would be rather than appreciate the player he actually is. Patrick Vieira he is not; to look for a rangy box to box field marshal in Xhaka is to set oneself up for disappointment. Instead, fans have to look at a player that once donned another (clearly inferior) shade of red up north on Merseyside for a proper comparison: Xabi Alonso. Like the Spaniard, Xhaka isn’t blessed with tremendous pace, but he uses his intelligence and anticipation to make up for it. Both players are adept at scoring from distance, as well as picking out a teammate almost anywhere on the pitch with a perfectly pinged long pass. Similarly, both display strong leadership qualities and a will to fight on in the centre of the pitch, traits which endear players of their sort to their managers.
Granit Xhaka displayed real leadership qualities this month, helping to drag his team back from the abyss of a totally lost season with his consistent effort and levelheadedness. As one of the few players that showed any will or desire against Manchester City (in either match), Xhaka is an example for others in the team to follow, despite the intense abuse and vitriol he faces on an almost regular basis from Arsenal fans (he has been forced, on more than one occasion, to disable the comments on photographs he has posted to social media following the receipt of multiple threats from angry Arsenal fans). Fans were sold on his leadership and intelligence when he arrived at the club, and finally as we near the end of his second season with the club, he is showing it on a consistent basis.
One only has to look at the way Xhaka has alertly dropped into the back line to make a stop in recent weeks compared to the free runners he was letting by him early in the year to see a clear improvement. His hard work is equally evident when comparing film of him from this season with last, as his quickness and general athleticism have taken a massive step forward to coincide with his settling into the Premier League. Xhaka may not have the best statistics of any Gunner in March, nor the Man of the Match awards to state his case, but for his fight in the face of humiliating defeat, his consistency in every match, and his attitude and desire to improve as a player showing promising signs, he is your Arsenal Insider Player of the Month