Granit Xhaka is often a divisive figure in the Arsenal side. At the start of this season, I myself wrote an article saying that he should not be starting in our midfield. It is safe to say, however, that this season has not gone at all according to plan and in this article, I will argue that at this point he is a key part of this Arsenal side.
Arsenal should not be a better side with the Swiss captain on the pitch- as I have said previously, his numerous weaknesses are not outweighed by his one asset – namely his passing range. However, given Arsenal’s recent results, failing to win in the five games since Xhaka’s episode, suggest that he was far more important than I previously gave him credit for.
A look at Arsenal’s typical methods of attack may explain why he has been persisted with for so long by Unai Emery. The Spaniard tries to channel almost all of his attacks through his full-backs and wingers, meaning that the Gunners very rarely have the ball in central areas. A quick glance at the graphic below, from Arsenal’s disappointing draw against Vitoria in the Europa League, will demonstrate this.
This is where Granit Xhaka comes in. His passing range in this scenario is actually enough to endear him to his manager’s hugely flawed system. In the games since him being dropped, Arsenal’s midfield has looked even more pedestrian than usual, whilst neither Lucas Torreira nor Matteo Guendouzi possess the passing range to emulate the Swiss international.
There are other issues – returning to a back three has definitely highlighted Xhaka’s loss, since none of the centre-backs seem comfortable stepping into midfield, and neither midfielder seems happy to pick the ball up from their defenders. One simple solution would be to use David Luiz as a midfielder, as he possesses many similar qualities to Xhaka whilst also being more mobile. At present though, a back three means that Arsenal’s midfield is virtually non-existent whilst the defence is no stronger. An altogether unsatisfactory combination.
It was clearly shortsighted at the very least, and criminal at worse, to scapegoat Xhaka in the way that the club have. It is true that his actions demanded some reprimand, but there was surely a solution which protected the player whilst also condemning his actions. To strip him of the Arsenal captaincy was frankly cowardly.
I do not endorse Emery’s style of football, in fact, I find it boring and ineffective – an opinion common with Arsenal fans. However, Xhaka was well suited to this flawed style and was the best midfielder in the squad in getting the ball out wide to begin Arsenal’s attacks. Guendouzi is something of a problem in this regard, since as good as he is, he is surely not what Unai Emery looks for in a midfielder, and cannot fit into any of the ideal Emery-type positions. He is not yet incisive enough to play as a primary ball carrier, nor is he defensively aware enough to displace Lucas Torreira. Neither are bad players, but nor does it seem that either of them fit well in Emery’s system. The answer, surely, is to change the system.
Numerous reports are that Arsenal are giving Emery four games after the international break to prove his credentials. The performances will have to be much improved after the shambolic display that was Saturday’s draw to Southampton, culminating in a stoppage-time winner that even scorer Lacazette looked embarrassed about. I severely question the logic of this decision given that these are four “winnable” fixtures. Surely now would be the perfect time to get a new manager in to get used to the squad, especially with the performances looking as poor as ever. With Pochettino now available, this is a chance to get in an incredible manager whilst also being able to “get one up” on our arch-rivals. He can certainly do no worse.
As it is, however, it seems that we are stuck with Unai Emery for at least the near future. If this is indeed the case, then the poor style of football is slightly improved at least in an attacking sense by the presence of Granit Xhaka. At the same time, can the defensive performances get any worse? I stand by my opinion that he should not, in an ideal world, be starting for Arsenal. This, however, is a crisis, and the club need him. It is time for the club to swallow its pride and return the Swiss to the starting XI, as already it seems that the top four is almost out of reach.