A Midfield Made of Granit

Arsenal’s Player of the Season award was something of a damp squib this year. It is difficult to think of any player that was consistently excellent throughout the campaign. Mesut Özil, in third place, was not consistent by his own exalted standards. Nacho Monreal was second on the podium for the commendable, yet hardly revelatory achievement of dropping a season of 7 and 8 out of 10 performances.

The eventual winner, Aaron Ramsey, only managed 36 games and there was probably a large element of ‘recency bias’ in the vote (much in the same way that the player of the month for August is nearly always won by a new signing). Ramsey had an excellent spring, but it’s unlikely he would have topped a pulse survey of the fanbase at the halfway point of the season.

It’s certainly been far more interesting to view the contribution made by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang since they arrived in January. A more interesting bauble might have been for ‘Most Improved Player’ given Arsenal’s uneven season and the vast squad churn in the last 12 months or so. If such an award existed, Granit Xhaka would have been a fitting candidate for it.

Xhaka has fitted latter era Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal like a glove. His upsides are considerable and they all involve the Gunners having possession and his downsides are numerous and all involve opponents having the ball. Xhaka was very slowly blooded into the Arsenal team until injury to Santi Cazorla in October 2016 expedited his induction.

The Swiss struggled as the deepest midfielder of a wide open Arsenal team. Granit looked like a control freak, which is to say when he did not have control of a situation, he panicked. Arsenal’s openness and Xhaka’s lack of mobility off the ball proved to be uneasy bedfellows and the ex-Moenchengladbach man often resorted to desperately swiping the legs of his opponents.

At the end of the 2016-17 season, the move to a back 3 improved his form. Suddenly there was more security behind him and his flaws were more easily accommodated. His job has always been to pick the ball up from the centre halves and recycle it effectively and with three centre halves, there was suddenly an extra man feeding him.

Playing with wing-backs meant Arsenal used the width of the pitch a lot more and his panorama increased greatly. Among his most useful strengths is his ability to switch play quickly. One of the most effective partnerships he has formed has been with Sead Kolasinac. When the two play together, Xhaka looks to hit Kolasinac early and often in wide spaces. This is particularly effective against teams that defend narrowly and funnel Arsenal’s attacks into tight, central spaces.

It is fair to say, Xhaka’s improvement from the back end of the 2016-17 season did not bleed into his second campaign. Though his discipline improved, his defensive awareness did not. He was rightly singled out on several occasions for basic lapses of defensive concentration in crucial away matches. But slowly, his off the ball contribution has improved.

He is far more conscientious about dropping in between his centre halves, as Adrian Clarke demonstrates in his end of season breakdown special. He is much better at jockeying opponents now, as opposed to diving into tackles (though he repeated that error for Paul Pogba’s goal at Old Trafford in April) and he puts himself in positions where his lack of pace is far less likely to be exposed.

The Swiss played in all 38 of Arsenal’s league games. Even towards the end of the season, when the Europa League became the utmost priority, Xhaka was not spared by Arsene Wenger for league games of little consequence. This is because he is so influential to Arsenal’s build up play, passing the ball more often than any other player in the Premier League this season. Nobody else in the Gunners squad replicates his skillset.

Elneny has some of Granit’s metronomic qualities, but the average length of Xhaka’s passing in 2017-18 was 18.44 metres. That’s longer than Fernandinho and Matic and also a metre further than Kevin de Bruyne, whose speciality this season became dropping off into pockets of space near the halfway line and whipping those Fabregas-esque quarter-back style balls into City’s strikers.

Xhaka is a very good deep lying playmaker. The issue has been more one of suitability than quality where his seesaw Arsenal career has been concerned. As I wrote a few weeks ago, players of this ilk are often partnered with a ‘bad cop’ in central midfield. Pirlo had Gattuso, Alonso had Mascherano, Modric has Casemiro. In the most symbiotic midfields of Arsene Wenger’s reign, Petit had Vieira and Fabregas had Flamini.

Xhaka has never been assigned this kind of bodyguard at Arsenal. Unai Emery has a bit of a decision to make with the central midfield. Xhaka is an excellent partner for Ramsey, but I am not convinced that the reverse is always true. The current squad does not have many players in the same profile as Granit- he will be 26 in September, he has leadership qualities and his medium term future seems pretty secure.

Arsenal do not have many first team players in this median age range- probably only Alex Lacazette, Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi share this profile, but none has yet risen to the level of first team prominence that Xhaka has. Elneny is a high level squad player, while Aaron Ramsey’s future still hangs in the balance.

Xhaka could ultimately be the most logical player to build the midfield around- and that would mean buying a partner that suits his qualities. While Xhaka’s defensive game has improved, it is still doing him an injustice to expect him to be the sole doorman of the Gunners midfield. Some of his best displays for the club have come in big games.

In the 2017 FA Cup Final against Chelsea and the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge in January, he was excellent. At Old Trafford in April, he played with authority next to Ainsley Maitland-Niles and his first excellent Arsenal performance was the North London derby draw in November 2016. In other words, in matches where the midfield unit is a little tighter and more disciplined, he has excelled.

Arsenal’s midfield needs renovation and it will probably be forced into it by the question marks that hover over Aaron Ramsey’s future. Xhaka’s improvement should be met with a note of caution because he appeared to improve at the tail end of 2016-17 and that standard was not maintained. Yet that felt more like the consequence of a slightly more defensive structure.

Xhaka’s upturn during 2018 looks a little bit more self-determined (who knows, maybe we can even chalk it up to good coaching?!) and not a result of his weaknesses simply being catered for. If Arsenal can buy him a complementary partner, handing over the keys of the midfield to Xhaka might not be the troublesome prospect that his detractors would have you believe.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for order here.