‘He’s a flop, a waste of money!’ and ‘Kanté cost less!’ have been thrown around as a précis of Granit Xhaka’s turbulent debut season in English football. Xhaka has shown his capabilities as well as his short comings this season, as he has recorded the longest average pass out of any Arsenal midfielder this season (18 m) & he also boasts 2,031 successful passes, 227 more than the German genius, Mesut Özil. In stark contrast, Xhaka’s only two red cards this season is a higher total than an amalgamation of all his teammates dismissals this campaign & has committed the most fouls in Arsenal’s midfield. Admittedly, this could be due to Xhaka’s having a slight anger streak which he has an inane tendency for publicizing but from a much more considered & revised perspective, it may be due to the fact that a combination of constraints has caused his complications. Under previous coach Lucien Favre, the Swiss international thrived as Gladbach’s creator in chief, with the more mobile yet equally creative Mahmoud Dahoud would roam as free as a bird, provided the German side with a duo which would trade each other’s weaknesses with an even greater strength. At Arsenal however, a concoction of indecisiveness by his manager may have propelled Xhaka into a crash course introduction of the Premier League. A wrong partner for Granit, an inconsistent pressing plan & a misunderstanding of his role have been more prominent theories as to what has put Xhaka in a twist this year but they are all easily reversible.
At Gladbach, Xhaka was accompanied by the highly intelligent Mahmoud Dahoud. Dahoud was more than adept at relieving a press by dribbling through markers with ease. Dahoud also possessed similar passing selection to Xhaka, meaning if the opposition set out to stop one distributor, the symphony would simply be led under a different conductor. At Arsenal however, the start of Xhaka’s career saw him partnered with the inept & borderline incapable Francis Coquelin. Granted, Coquelin’s role is that of a box-to-box destroyer & not that of a creative minded player but the Frenchman lapses when performing simple things such as releasing the ball at the right time & pressing correctly thus becoming such a problem in-game it causes Xhaka to vacate his own position order to correct Coquelin’s mistakes. When paired with Elneny, the too are relatively stable but fail to link defence & attack which in turn would occasionally leave Özil fading in & out of the game. Towards the end of the season Wenger seemingly stumbled upon his magic formula, a 3-4-2-1 with Xhaka partnered by Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey could do what many of what other of Arsenal’s midfielders couldn’t; he had more stamina than the likes of Cazorla (injured for most of the campaign) & Coquelin, whilst he was also better going forward than Elneny so it seemed as if a Xhaka-Ramsey pairing would be ideal. Conversely, Ramsey’s injury record & tendency to lean on the chaotic side of things see him take too many touches for a shot or take too long for a pass mean that Xhaka is ever so close from having a perfect partner.
The FA Cup final this season was an indication of what Xhaka & Ramsey can do at the peak of their powers. Faced against the sturdy Nemanja Matić & (oddly tired) N’golo Kanté, Arsenal’s core remained strong as they kept their team on the front foot for most of the game. Ramsey’s goal was evidence of how beneficial a willing forward runner is next to Xhaka whilst Granit managed to unlock the slim spaces between Chelsea outside centre backs, with needle like accuracy.
For now Aaron Ramsey & Granit Xhaka seem a model pairing, providing they continue showcasing their blossoming synergy. With Jack Wilshere coming back from his loan spell at Bournemouth & a transfer window to come, Arsene Wenger may yet invest in a better partner for Xhaka should he see fit.
Let’s talk about pace. It is an obviously negative of Granit Xhaka’s game as he prefers to conduct most of his business centrally as opposed to venturing into the wilderness of half-spaces & wing areas. Arsenal’s counter-pressing is defective in a way that it inadvertently causes Xhaka problems; whether he is part of the immediate press or not. If he is the ball-near midfielder in the pressing, he is left chasing the play should his side fail to turn over the ball, conversely if he is the ball-far midfielder, he is left with a large area of space to cover on his own which regularly ends up in him giving away a foul and in some cases receiving a card.
Proven by his red card against Burnley, Xhaka rightly reacts to the universal pressing trigger of ‘win it back as soon as it is lost’ but with no one else engaging with him, Xhaka panics & the rest is history. In a revised pressing system, it would’ve been more beneficial to support Xhaka in a way that would allow him to press partially, in a way that allows him to be close enough to press but far enough to receive the ball & stabilise possession. The dilemma with having a slow player as part of a press is that they can usually be targeted as an ‘escape route’ for the ball carrier & a simple one-two would see Xhaka’s pressing effort nullified.
Although maybe this isn’t entirely Xhaka’s fault, it may stem from a misunderstanding of his role. For those aware of the regista role, a common denominator of registas is either their lack of pace, agility or any physical aspect (a mobile regista breaks down this stereotype but that’s for another day), for those who don’t know, a regista is an Italian term meaning ‘deep-lying playmaker’. Top registas are commonly placed as the deepest midfielder of a midfield three with two players who are more able at running & have superior engines; as an example turn to Antonio Conte’s Juventus. Andrea Pirlo was rather slow & Conte got the best out of him by deploying two of Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio or Paul Pogba in front of Pirlo to do the running for him whilst also being able to use their own abilities in the game.
What stops Arsenal from playing such a style is that they also possess a certain Mesut Özil who isn’t specifically interested in defending or running from box-to-box. Wenger has navigated this hitch adequately but using a 3-4-2-1 where Özil is backed up by the energetic Ramsey & Xhaka is protected by the speedy Alexis Sánchez which suits the needs of Arsenal’s brightest creative brains. The only real problem that occurs from this is that if either Sánchez or Ramsey are tempted out of position, they leave Xhaka and/or Özil with a certain amount of defensive work to do, which neither are keen on.
Towards the end of the 2016/17 season Granit Xhaka showed what he can do when his conditions are optimal. The new 3-4-2-1 system deployed by Wenger has seemingly bought him two more years at the club-much to the dismay of the #WengerOut brigade-which, with a pre-season will allow Wenger some time to get the most out of Xhaka as registas are few & far between. Next year the ongoing craze of parking the bus may well continue therefore, ‘If a deep block is a lock, a regista is key.’ (Tweet credited to @registability)
Photo Credit: Sky Sports
By: Ham Mpanga