Xhaka needs big Basel homecoming to assert himself in Arsenal's midfield

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The midfielder faces his former club and older brother for a second time in as many months on Tuesday night as he continues to bid to earn a regular starting place


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It is almost five years since Granit Xhaka left FC Basel for German giants Borussia Monchengladbach, and on Tuesday night the Switzerland international will return to where it all began. Born in Basel to Kosovo Albanian parents, the 24-year-old will also come up against his older brother Taulant for the third time this year in a battle of two talented midfielders looking to get one over each other.

"Quite an emotional trip for me to Basel, where I had my first steps of my career," Xhaka posted on social media before boarding Arsenal’s private jet to Switzerland on Monday. The match at St Jakob-Park will resonate with Xhaka and fellow former Basel player Mohamed Elneny more than others in the Gunners' squad, and it is perhaps one reason why they are expected to start as the central-midfield duo for Arsene Wenger’s side.

Xhaka arrived in north London for a fee of £30 million as Wenger stepped up his search to find long-term replacements for the departed Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky. Despite getting off to an impressive start, scoring a debut goal against Hull City and an equally stunning long-range effort in the EFL Cup away to Nottingham Forest, a place in Wenger's XI has been difficult to come by for a player who played in and captained Gladbach almost every match last season.

His qualities aren’t typical of what Wenger has sought in previous transfer windows. Xhaka isn’t a diminutive, tricky or particular skilful midfielder, but what Arsenal do have is an aggressive, tough tackling passer who is able to direct defence-splitting balls through the eye of a needle. Santi Cazorla’s absence due to injury is a huge blow but there may be a saving grace in Xhaka - even if Saturday’s match against West Ham was one of the easier games he’s likely to play in this season.

"Xhaka has a number of qualities," Basel’s sporting director Georg Heitz told Goal shortly after Xhaka joined Arsenal. "Football-wise he is a natural-born leader but I think the outstanding quality is his mentality because he wants to win, win, win.

"I remember when he went to the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 he told us he took enough clothes to reach the final and then he came back as a world champion.

"That’s an example just to show how strong his mentality is. They [the young players] need to know that they have to work hard. Granit is a player who definitely wants to work hard and who has shown that by developing in Gladbach and becoming captain at a young age."

Indeed, the leadership qualities that Heitz refers to are only going to benefit Arsenal going forward. It remains to be seen whether Xhaka will be a part of their first-choice midfield when everyone is fully fit; despite his sound overall performance, Shkodran Mustafi created more chances than him against West Ham and his seven Premier League starts from a possible 14 is an illustration of the fact Wenger believes he needs to be bedded into the team more slowly than many would have predicted when he signed.

Xhaka’s goal away to Ludogorets in an earlier Group A game provided of a glimpse of what he capable when he drives into the final third of the pitch. With Francis Coquelin providing defensive cover alongside him, all that remains to be seen is whether Xhaka has the qualities to be Arsenal's deep-lying playmaker while Cazorla is sidelined.

"[Granit] needs to adapt, then we need to find the balance because he plays in a deeper-lying midfield position, and he passes through the lines," Wenger told Arsenal’s official website last month.

"He needs to adapt to the way we play and the tactical pace of the English game. I am confident he will do very well.

"Yes [he is taking time to adapt] but that is part of the job. People want you to buy players but when you buy them we only have 11 spaces and not 22, and they feel sorry for the 11 who do not play. You want them to compete and convince you that they can get in the team."

If it is only a case of adapting to his new-found role in this Arsenal team then neither Xhaka or Wenger have much to worry about. They are blessed with a handful of talented players who are able to fill in for Cazorla, including Aaron Ramsey and the versatile Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but it is the Swiss who will be given licence to stake his claim at St Jakob-Park.

Xhaka's homecoming in Switzerland has all the ingredients to become an entertaining final group game but you can be sure that he will be leaving any sentiment until after he has taken on his older brother and former club on Tuesday night.

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