Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tactics Column: Granit Xhaka’s promising display spoiled by sending-off

Arsene Wenger baffled a few fans when he said that he saw Granit Xhaka as a box-to-box midfielder. After all, the team has been missing a presence in front of the defence who could control the ball ever since Mikel Arteta was no longer a first pick, and Xhaka had performed with distinction in that role at Borussia Monchengladbach. But Wenger sees him best playing slightly higher up “because he has the engine, the power, the long pass, he likes to come deep and distribute the game. I think as well he has the engine to make an impact with his runs.”

The Swiss international has since had a run of four games at the heart of midfield but the distinction between playing deep-lying and box-to-box hasn’t been instantly obvious. If anything, he’s actually been used in his normal way – with some adjustments – as Wenger gives him a chance to acclimatise to the Premier League before eventually altering his role, although in any case, the manager historically doesn’t like playing with holding midfielders.

He tried to play with a single pivote during the Cesc Fabregas era, and then again when he converted Mikel Arteta to a deeper role, but most of Wenger’s tenure at the club has been without defensive midfielders as such – or that one has been more defensive-minded. If anything, he’s tried to convert players with a certain selfless attitude who, at the same time, are also able to aid Arsenal’s attacking play.

As such, though Swansea coach Bob Bradley likened his impact on the English game to that of Johan Cruyff, on the pitch, Wenger follows more the German model with his preference of the “double six” – two central midfielders who react accordingly to the situation of the play.

We saw that in the 3-2 win over Swansea where, although Xhaka was nominally the deeper player, when he pushed up, Santi Cazorla would often sweep behind. At times they got into each others position but, for the most part, the rotation worked well. The example below highlights that best because it’s Cazorla who starts more advanced in the move but as it breaks down, Xhaka is there looking to win the ball back and by the end of the attack, he even has a shot on goal.

Thus we understand the subtle reason why Wenger prefers to call it a box-to-box role. Defensive duties are shared of course, perhaps more so for one player over the other, but the game situation might see that player at the other end of the pitch. Xhaka’s role often entails him to follow the attack so that he’s there to seize on the loose ball and keep the ball moving. Thus he’s not just limited to defending the 25 metres between the penalty box and the centre-circle in his own half, but the whole pitch.

And to be fair, Xhaka did that well for much of the game before an act of impetuousness saw his game cut short. The red card was perhaps a little harsh but it exposed a petulance in his game that he needs to learn how to control. There is an argument that it was a necessary challenge, that he prevented a 4 v 2 on the break, but the apparent force he used to trip Barrow probably convinced Jon Moss the red card was merited.

In any case, Xhaka was a little sluggish to get to the Swansea winger and he probably read the wrong pass. He was marking the central midfielder when the ball was played when the easier pass was to Barrow out wide. By the time he realised, it was too late – and questions should also be asked of the team and why it was necessary for Arsenal to push that many men forward.

Till then, it had been going so well for Arsenal and considering the pattern of the play, the two goals they conceded were aberrations. Somehow, when they had complete dominance of the game, they inexplicably seemed intent on letting it slip away. Xhaka was certainly culpable for the first goal when he attempted to dribble from the back but took his eye off the ball at the last moment. He was then dispossessed by Gylfi Sigurddson who expertly curled the ball into the top corner.

Just watching the highlights, for Swansea’s first goal and the red card, you might have got the impression Xhaka wasn’t suited to the deeper role. But his gait, so elegant usually, failed him and his pace, not express, is compensated by a hunger for possession.

In the game, we rarely saw Xhaka pick the ball up from deep. That’s mainly because Bob Bradley chose to play with a 4-4-2 without any fixed strikers – the wide players were the ones providing the depth – so naturally, the centre-backs had time on the ball. It was a narrow formation too, so instead of going through the middle, the centre-backs would often chose to go wide first to the full-backs, before the ball was played inside.

In any case, Wenger likes his centre-backs to have the ball, and it’s the job of the midfielders to alternate positions to open space for them to bring the ball. And when the opponent presses, that’s when the gaps open for the central midfielders drop in and receive the ball.

Early on, Koscielny and Mustafi were superb, quickly recognising when to zip the ball through Swansea’s midfield or switch the play wide. With Swansea dropping off, much of the first thirty-minutes was played in their half as Arsenal not only bumped the ball comfortably, but were quick to put pressure on the opponents when the ball was loose. Xhaka in particular, started very well, playing on the front foot quick to seize on errant passes. By the end of his time on the pitch, he had recovered the ball ten times (i.e. when it was loose), made 5 interceptions and attempted 4 tackles.

He was good in possession too, sensing the moments to up the tempo in attacks. His involvements in the goals highlight the understated quality he brings, first by being available for the pass, and then being able to execute a pinpoint pass to a teammate in the face of pressure. For the first goal, it’s a fairly standard build-up made notable because in another system, Xhaka might have been tempted to drop to alongside the centre-backs to stretch the pitch.

Instead he holds his position, giving space Koscielny to face the play. When the ball is played back towards the left side, that’s when he senses his marker has dropped his guard and then he is able to slot into the space just in front to create that priceless triangle out the back. Of course, Alex Iwobi in front does well to attract the attention of said marker, Jack Cork, and drops into the space that otherwise Santi Cazorla or Mesut Ozil would occupy. Suddenly Arsenal up the gears, and the move ends with Hector Bellerin nodding the ball forward which Theo Walcott eventually taps in.

For the second goal, it;s Xhaka’s zipped pass that sparks the impetus for the attack, as trapped in a crowded corner, he manages to find enough time to scan what’s ahead of him and pick Alexis Sanchez with pinpoint precision. From there, Arsenal counter, and after Bellerin wins the corner, Theo Walcott has an easy finish from the six-yard box. For the final goal, his involvement is in a ball-winning capacity, there when the ball is loose and then quickly playing it to Santi Cazorla. The rest of the move is delightful as Alexis picked out Mesut Ozil with a glorious looped pass which the number 10 hammered home.

It was a shame Xhaka’s participation was cut short and after conceding the second goal Arsenal hung on. If the goals they scored showed the impressive ability of Arsenal to mix attacks better this season, the goals they let in perhaps highlight a vulnerability due to the way they pour men forward, something which Wenger is trying to address with the box-to-box ball-winning role of Francis Coquelin.

Xhaka has tried to assume that role – with a bit more panache – in the four games that he has played and overall he has done well. He’s still clearly finding his feet but there are signs that he could become the midfield linchpin Arsenal are looking for.

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