Amongst many disappointments during Arsenal’s abject defeat to Leicester City, there was an observation made by a few keen observers with a seemingly rueful irony:
Arsenal’s midfield just might not be able to function without Granit Xhaka.
It’s a controversial observation, given the events of the past fortnight, and more broadly this season. Xhaka’s been stripped of the club captaincy, dropped from the squad and may leave the club as soon as January, but for him to leave would represent the beginning of a chronic problem in Arsenal’s squad that will be harder to solve than many think.
Arsenal’s style of play relies on a player like Granit Xhaka, and despite his weaknesses, there are few in the world that can do what he does as well as he can. It’s a much bigger sacrifice than many think to lose this, and Arsenal fans may live to regret it in the aftermath of a Xhaka exit.
Guendouzi not yet ready
Against Leicester, Arsenal featured the midfield three fans had been crying out for: Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi, and Mesut Ozil, although in typical Emery style, he refused to play Ozil and Nicolas Pepe together, instead opting for a more conservative back three that greatly contributed to Arsenal’s singular shot on target for the match.
The lack of chance creation was partly down to selection, partly down to Emery’s insistence on a conservative build-up where Arsenal refuse to keep the ball in the centre of the final third, for fear of being caught on the counter as a move breaks down.
However, it was also partly down to the absence of Arsenal’s Swiss general. Matteo Guendouzi, just 20 years of age, performed the role Xhaka usually plays on Saturday evening and while his talent is obvious, it comes to the fore primarily in the moments when Arsenal need a goal.
Guendouzi needs time to develop the maturity to run the midfield for Arsenal, not just thrive in it. Too often on Saturday, he was caught making the wrong decision at the wrong time, trying to drive the team forward in moments where possession should have been recycled, and too conservative in moments where Arsenal needed a player to push them towards goal.
The Frenchman will, in time, develop this decision-making maturity, and in the short term, this Torreira-Guendouzi partnership may become a more permanent fixture, as indeed the fans want it to, but Xhaka’s perceived flaws that mean his absence is greeted with delight in the eyes of the Arsenal fans are exactly that: partly perception, and partly circumstantial.
In this sense, circumstances created by the fans and by Xhaka himself – it’s difficult to come back from shouting obscenities at the fans when already a divisive player – mean that we may never see a reintegration or a fairy tale ending involving trophies, singing and laps of honour.
Yet, should there be scope to, a reintegrated Xhaka the right way may just be the spark that Arsenal need to save their season.
Three contrasting coaches, same attitude
Emery’s attachment to Xhaka the player is well documented, much to many Arsenal fans’ distaste. Xhaka has, until the incident against Palace, been a fixture in Emery’s Arsenal XIs, despite consistent changes in formation.
For all their flaws as coaches, one would be loath to liken the Spaniard to José Mourinho in style, which makes Mourinho’s analysis of Xhaka on TV last week extremely interesting reading, even if in a surprising sense.
“Granit Xhaka is the main man in the entire Arsenal midfield, you can’t see it unless I lend you one of my eyes. Without him, Arsenal is lost.”
“He is a leader. Remember, mistakes are made by humans.“
One would be inclined to think Xhaka’s ingrained defensive frailties would annoy, if not actively anger the Portuguese manager, notorious for his workhorse, well-drilled midfields.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed in action by Arsene Wenger, despite being so opposite in style to his long-time rival-turned-friend Mourinho.
Xhaka started 37 games in Arsenal’s final season under Wenger, who refused to drop him despite some high-profile and costly errors that had the fans consistently on his back throughout the two years he played under Wenger.
Wenger, despite admitting when he signed him that he didn’t know what his best position was, found ways to insert Xhaka into the Arsenal line-up, whatever the formation, as he found his qualities more valuable than his weaknesses.
Three managers, three different styles of play, three different styles of coaching. Yet all of them agree that Granit Xhaka is a fulcrum of Arsenal’s midfield.
Qualities outweigh the weaknesses
The question begs, why do these three coaches, all with some quantifiable successes in their careers, think so differently to the majority of Arsenal fans and football pundits alike?
To answer, one must make an objective analysis of Xhaka’s qualities, as well as his more obvious weaknesses. Xhaka’s assets as a player are much more respected by people with a more holistic view on football, such as coaches. These people ask a question a lot of fans and pundits fail to: who made the critical action that led to this chance being created?
The action might be a tackle that started a counter-attack, or a pass deep in defence that broke two lines. It might be a switch of play or a ten-yard dribble that results in the ball moving into a dangerous area of the pitch, unexpectedly. It could even be the finish, a shot that goes in when few would have expected it to.
In Arsenal’s case, many times the answer is to the question of who makes the critical action that leads to a chance, is Granit Xhaka.
The Swiss international is simply one of the best deep progressors in the league. Not only with his long passing, which allows Arsenal to move the ball huge distances with low risk (normally a turnover is at least 50-50 with a long pass into attack), but also his ability to break lines, and despite his generally low turnover rate, it is acknowledged that his turnovers do tend to be in quite critical areas of the pitch.
Xhaka’s ability isn’t just in the final phase of Arsenal’s build-up either. He plays risky passes at an astonishingly good rate in transition, so often sending Arsenal on their way to goal with a delicate ball between players and lines of defence, picking out players no one else at the Emirates can.
Even positionally, in a defensive sense, he’s actually fairly disciplined. All in all, he adds a lot, not much of it obvious, to the Arsenal side. A lot of what the Swiss adds makes other players play better.
Mesut Ozil, a genius on the ball, needs to receive the ball in the right areas to function as a high-lying playmaker, and Xhaka is often the man to provide this.
Nicolas Pepe is at his best receiving the ball between the lines, and it often takes an obscure diagonal pass between the lines to find him. More often than not, that pass comes from Arsenal’s Swiss midfielder.
It is these qualities that make Arsenal function, in whatever flawed sense they function in. It is these qualities that Arsenal were robbed of on Saturday. It is these qualities that mean Wenger, Emery, and Mourinho all view Xhaka as the heart of the Arsenal team.
It is these qualities that mean that Arsenal must reintegrate their former captain.
How then, do you possibly justify Xhaka’s weaknesses?
His weaknesses are infuriating, obvious, and in any analysis, deserve to be pointed out.
Xhaka is weak defensively, through a combination of a lack of speed and agility, his one-footedness (meaning its easy to press him), and his poor defensive actions – he’s a bad tackler, bad decision-maker when it comes to defensive actions, and not anticipatory enough to snuff out attacks through his positioning.
What Arsenal fans must realise, however, is that what he provides in Arsenal’s build-up mean that it’s worth putting a player alongside him who can mitigate some of his defensive weaknesses.
In Uruguayan Lucas Torreira, Arsenal have exactly that player. The midfielder is quick, agile, defensively minded, safe in possession, particularly when coming out of the back, and an excellent tackler and interceptor.
It’s absolutely no surprise that Xhaka’s best period at the club coincided with him playing alongside Torreira in a 4-2-3-1, as it mitigated his defensive weaknesses by not only providing him cover but by cutting out the number of defensive actions he had to make.
Indeed, much of Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the early part of last season was built around this Torreira-Xhaka partnership, and Xhaka’s assets in Arsenal’s build-up meant that Torreira could primarily focus on being a defensive midfielder (which is what he’s actually good at, please note Mr. Emery).
He was only required forward to create overloads where Xhaka’s immobility or deep positioning meant Arsenal didn’t have enough players forward, and the Uruguayan is just about tidy enough on the ball to be handy on the odd occasion in attack.
Throughout his Arsenal career, this period is the only time that Xhaka has been played in his best position, as a true number eight in a 4-2-3-1. It’s no surprise that many supporters were commenting on how much Xhaka had improved in that period, as he was relatively error-free with appropriate defensive cover.
Ultimately, Xhaka may never get the chance to show his true qualities to Arsenal fans. Six months of 2018 aside, he’s never played in his true position at Arsenal. His actions as captain – as much as it was a completely normal, understandable reaction from a player who’s received death threats and who was being subjected to extreme mental anguish by a group of supporters who don’t want the club to be successful, merely made in their own image – mean that it may be best for club and player if they part as soon as possible.
However, with all that Xhaka brings for the team, as told by the players themselves, as told through results, as told by the words and actions of three contrasting coaches, should serve as a stark warning to Arsenal fans who think they know better.
Be careful what you wish for.