Cool hand Xhaka makes Swiss midfield tick
By Brian Homewood
NICE, France, (Reuters) - It says a lot about Granit Xhaka's playing style that the Swiss midfielder mainly made headlines against France because he twice had his shirt ripped, rather than for his performance itself.
Xhaka's contribution may not have been eye-catching but he was the man who made Switzerland tick as they dominated the French with an impressive 59 percent possession. There is a cool elegance about the 23-year-old, voted man of the match in his side's first two Euro 2016 games, which is in stark contrast to the scurrying Valon Behrami who plays alongside him in front of the back four.
Xhaka, who has helped Switzerland into the European Championship last 16 for the first time where they face Poland on Satuday, is unflappable on the ball and the accuracy of his passing, even when under pressure from two or three opponents, is almost second to none.
He completed 292 passes in three group games, a total beaten only by Germany's Toni Kroos, and better even than Spain's Andres Iniesta. His accuracy rate of 92 percent is also one of the highest in the competition.
Xhaka, who is joining Arsenal from Borussia Moenchengladbach next season, does most of his work inside the Swiss half, helping them play their way out of defence.
He is a player who gets moves going, rather than providing the killer pass himself and his scoring rate is not especially high with six goals in 46 appeances for Switzerland and nine in 140 league appearances over four seasons for Moenchengladbach.
A lot of his passes may go sideways or backwards but they always go to a team mate in space and help maintain Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic's philosophy of dominating possession against any opponent.
Xhaka compliments his unmatched distribution with strong tackling and, for such an elegant player, he can be surprisingly volatile with three red cards last season for Gladbach, something he blamed on his tendency to react to provocation.
Petkovic said before the tournament that he saw Xhaka as a future Switzerland captain. "He's gained considerably in confidence, the difference is quite striking and you can see that in his body language," he said.
"He can and should take on a big responsibility for Switzerland, he has the right character for it. He is mentally ready to lead a team. Xhaka can become the coach's right arm. "You feel that he respects his older team mates and for me, that is a sign of social intelligence. Xhaka doesn't look for conflicts, he looks for responsibilities."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)