One of my key frustrations in internet discourse is the failure to appreciate that more than one thing can be true at the same time. Contradictory positions can be simultaneously held and, truthfully, life is often quite complicated and there are few all encompassing answers- more often than not competing truths are simultaneously true.
Which brings me to my thesis for this column. Granit Xhaka is a very important player for Arsenal. Granit Xhaka is also a limited player whose flaws require a lot of corrective tactical surgery to cover. Shortly before Mikel Arteta’s appointment in December, writing a column on Xhaka’s weaknesses would have been considered the lowest of low-hanging fruit.
Xhaka’s tempestuous fallout with Arsenal fans during a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in October saw him stripped of the captaincy and demanding a January transfer. Wherever you stood on that particular incident– the overwhelming consensus was that Xhaka’s Arsenal career was irreparable. That is, until new boss Mikel Arteta talked him into staying with the club.
Granit is a very emotional player and person who can be prone to snap decisions. Having finished 8th in the Premier League this season it is perhaps not my place as an Arsenal fan to look down on our midtable peers but a hasty move to 10th place Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin would have proved a questionable career decision for Xhaka, a case of a player cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Xhaka found a kindred spirit in Arteta, himself an arguably underappreciated deep-lying midfielder more renowned for his skills in possession than his mobility or tenacity. As I wrote a fortnight ago, the Lucas Torreira type of screening midfielder is becoming as outmoded as the flighty number 10. Ngolo Kante is the gold standard of the shuttle and scurry defensive midfielder and even his stock is falling at Chelsea with the qualities of Jorginho, Kovacic and even Billy Gilmour more prized by Frank Lampard, a man who owns a small portion of his success to playing in front of Claude Makelele.
Arteta was at the vanguard of the fashion for distributors in deep midfield positions, with Arsene Wenger preferring his qualities to the likes of Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin. One of Arteta’s initial successes as Arsenal coach has been to reduce tactical stress on players in defensive areas. Mustafi’s form has improved, in part, because he has less space to cover and the temptation to launch into a 30-yard slide tackle is reduced.
Initially Arteta found Xhaka a role in a cubby-hole somewhere between left-back, left centre-half and left central midfield. In Arteta’s ‘juego de posicion’ vision, Xhaka served a dual purpose. Primarily, he served as cover for Bukayo Saka to forage forward from left wing-back. Arteta often asks a full-back to step into midfield to create a third man but, on this occasion, he reversed that trend with Xhaka, inviting him to move back into defence.
This move wasn’t just about protecting Saka however. Played slightly further back, Xhaka was protected from the opposition press in this unmanned territory. The Swiss is not an especially press resistant player, he is a ‘one-way’ player who needs the game in front of him. He struggles to turn and chase and his lack of athleticism coupled with his one-footedness make him an easy player to marshal for the opposition.
Eventually, Xhaka was brought back into a more conventional midfield role as Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac returned from injury and Saka was no longer asked to play at left wing-back. The coach, like Unai Emery before him, struggled to find a midfield combination that truly worked. This is another inconvenient truth of Xhaka’s Arsenal career- he has yet to find a truly fruitful partnership.
His partnership with Aaron Ramsey with the security of a back three behind them was partially successful. However, the likes of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have never truly clicked alongside him. Since project restart, Arteta has fallen back on a partnership of Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka, which has fared far better than previous incarnations.
However, this combination is still flawed. It lacks athleticism [and Xhaka’s lack of athleticism makes this a primary attribute required in a partner] and can only really play one way. The partnership has excelled in games where Arsenal surrender the initiative, sit deep and hit teams on the counter, primarily through the flanks where the wing-backs, Pepe and Aubameyang seek to expose opponents.
This is another example of Arteta cutting his cloth accordingly because the lack of creativity and athleticism in his midfield pairing restricts his ability to confidently play through the centre of the pitch. Ceballos is, in my view, also a deep lying playmaker albeit one with a greater ability to turn and play in different directions than Xhaka. This means that Arsenal struggle when handed the initiative to break down a deep block.
In fairness to Xhaka and Ceballos, it’s not entirely their fault that the Arsenal midfield is relatively one-dimensional. The flaws at the back require an extra defender and that means the Gunners play with a midfield two as opposed to a three. If Xhaka and Ceballos lacks some key physical and attacking attributes, it’s probably because the need for an extra defender denies them an extra body to make up that deficit.
A midfield three of Xhaka, Ceballos and Saka, in my view, has a much more modern look and feel to it. Xhaka’s super-power is taking the ball on his left foot and fizzing it into teammates. He has a pleasing ability to send a spinning pass up the left-flank where a lot of the team’s most attacking players tend to congregate.
The problem, in my view, is the relatively slow speed at which he does it. The ability to receive on the half-turn and progress the ball swiftly is such a key attribute in the modern game. Watching Xhaka receive the ball from a defensive colleague, turn and place it perfectly onto his left instep before progressing sometimes feels akin to watching a lorry attempting a three-point turn in a cul-de-sac.
Against a deep block, it slows Arsenal’s build-up play and if a team decides to press Arsenal high up the pitch, it is very easy to stand on Xhaka’s toes and shepherd him back towards his own goal because he cannot turn away from pressure [Ceballos can do this, for instance]. Now, let’s clarify a few things because I anticipate this column will draw some strong reaction.
Xhaka is far from Arsenal’s biggest problem. He is also one of Arsenal’s two best central midfielders and entirely deserves his place in the starting line-up given current options. This is to damn him with faint praise, of course. The keys of the Arsenal midfield have been handed from Vieira, to Fabregas, to Cazorla and now to Xhaka and since Xhaka inherited them, Arsenal have finished 5th, 6th, 5th and 8th in the league.
Granit is clearly a popular member of the squad and I find the many, many anecdotes about his suitability as a role-model and a leader on the training ground entirely believable. I am certain Arteta considers him a leader and technical reference point and the players voted for him to be skipper in the autumn, which tells you a lot about how he is seen by his peers.
I understand why Arsenal fans might reject the tenet of this article because Xhaka has completed an extraordinary u-turn on his Gunners career, for which he deserves enormous credit. It’s a lovely story, frankly and nobody wants a “but actually” scrawled into the margin of a redemption tale. Arteta clearly values Xhaka’s presence, attributes and character in his team.
However, I still think the truth is that Xhaka is a player whose flaws Arsenal have to work really, really hard to hide and he requires a unicorn of a midfield partner or a back three behind him to properly conceal- the latter option puts even more impetus on Xhaka’s partner to perform several functions at once.
It’s not an issue that will be addressed this summer but eventually, Arsenal are going to have to find a more multi-faceted player to hand the keys of their midfield to if they want to arrest their decline. I recognise that many of us have bought into the redemption arc- I have too, to an extent. I also think that Arsenal should make decisions based on footballing improvements and not what constitutes pleasing content.