How Granit Xhaka complements every single one of Arsenal’s midfield options
By Greg Johnson
It’s official. Granit Xhaka is an Arsenal player.
The Swiss midfielder has signed a long-term contract with the Gunners to shore up their options in the centre of the park, according to the club’s official website.
During a four year stint at Borussia Monchengladbach in the German Bundesliga, the 23-year-old made 102 league appearances, scoring six goals, to become one of the most admired young midfielders in Europe.
Only Xabi Alonso and Julian Weigl made more passes than Xhaka in the 2015/16 league season, who also averaged eight duels and just under five defensive actions-per-game. He has the profile of exactly the sort of ball-playing defensive midfielder Mikel Arteta was meant to be, albeit more muscular, imposing and aggressive.
Granit Xhaka is the most prolific pass master outside of Germany’s top two.
Arsene Wenger is often criticised for his dithering in the transfer market. However, over the past two seasons his success rate at identifying the perfect additions to complement his existing midfield has been impressive, and by getting business done early this summer to sign Xhaka, it looks as though the Frenchman has once again found another player to add to the harmony of his first-choice XI.
The Egyptian, who arrived at Arsenal from Basel in January, already enjoys a loose association with Xhaka. It was Elneny who effectively replaced his new teammate in the Swiss Super League side’s midfield in 2013, a year after the Switzerland national team regular was sold to Gladbach in 2012.
Yet there are differences between the two players. Xhaka is far less mobile than Elneny, who’s impressed Arsenal fans in his first few months in the Premier League with his energy, movement and ability to cover ground, as well as complete passes.
Xhaka and Elneny share similarities and differences.
His new counterpart in the centre of the field is a more static presence, and excels at sitting back and soaking up possession, as well as guarding the back four. With Elneny pushing on, Xhaka could be the perfect, heavyweight partner to sit and keep the Gunners’ rearguard secure.
Of course, Arsenal already have a specialist at keeping their defenders safe and secure from midfield: Francis Coquelin – the police officer – who emerged as a first-choice player for Wenger back in January 2015 after previously failing to hold down a spot in the first-team squad and being loaned out to develop.
He returned to the Emirates from another spell away with Charlton Athletic and immediately proved himself worthy of a starting berth at the back of midfield, swotting away threats and sweeping up the ball to feed his more creative teammates.
The perfect pair to shut teams out of games?
Due to the physical decline and injuries to Arteta, what should’ve been Wenger’s most secure configuration in midfield – the Spaniard to smother the ball and close off angles while Coquelin harassed opponents and closed down space – never quite worked.
Xhaka however could be the perfect partner to put matches into lock-down alongside the Frenchman.
Over the past 18 months, Coquelin and Cazorla has been Arsenal’s best combination in midfield. While the former presses and chases to keep their spine solid and secure, the latter’s technical mastery and creativity with the ball can add another dimension to the Gunners’ style of play.
The Spaniard’s two-footedness and low-centre of gravity allow him to evade the pressing of opposing teams – a major asset in the modern game – and when fit is sure to be one of the first names on Wenger’s team-sheet.
For all of Coquelin’s qualities, he falls down as a passer of the ball, and in games where Arsenal need even more quality in keeping and using possession, Xhaka would be an excellent option.
He’s also well-used to working alongside and feeding more adroit creative players from deeper-lying midfield positions for Gladbach, and has been a solid, skilful collaborator with the highly-rated Mahmoud Dahoud this season.
Xhaka could be a solid, ball-playing foil to Cazorla, capable of hitting long passes from deep.
Where would Wilshere be if he could stay fit? The English midfielder has long been touted as one of the biggest talents of his generation for his country, and the answer to Arsenal’s various midfield problems whenever the likes of Cazorla is unavailable.
Jack Wilshere has a bad habit of showing too much of himself when taking opponents on – a major risk regardless of the rewards.
Injuries on the training field have certainly played their part in holding him back, but it’s often been on the field of competition where his most damaging breakdowns have come. Would a more intimidating enforcer make opponents think twice about leaving their mark on the Englishman?
Xhaka committed the third-most fouls in the Bundesliga this season, and also received three red cards and seven yellows – hardly a record to shout about as a positive, but with Arsenal so often criticised for lacking the combativeness and mental and physical toughness to stand up to adversity, his aggression could come in handy.
Xhaka vs. Arsenal for red cards received-per-90 minutes.
The Gunners committed the fewest fouls in the Premier League this season. Wilshere might not be the only player to benefit from having a bouncer played alongside him to keep order and help deter his aggressors.
Undoubtedly the jewel in Arsenal’s crown, the German playmaker notched the joint-most assists in Europe’s top five leagues – tied with Angel Di Maria on 19 – but arguably should’ve recorded even more to smash Thierry Henry’s long-standing record in the Premier League.
While Olivier Giroud’s sudden inability to finish may have ultimately let his teammate down in his efforts to set a new benchmark, the Gunners had other issues that derailed their momentum, namely the lack of depth once Cazorla and Co. became injured.
Mesut Ozil created the most chances in the Premier League this season.
After three seasons that have seen Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech arrive to add quality to the first-team, Xhaka is arguably a consolidation signing. He will play plenty of games, for sure, but isn’t the sort of statement signing comparable with the former three. However Arsenal have suffered for a lack of depth.
Ozil’s level hardly dipped all season. With players such as Xhaka brought in to ensure future gaps can be filled by other options, perhaps his team can ensure they can remain as consistent throughout a full campaign in the future.
Given his greater athleticism and more imposing physique, and Wilshere’s elegance and skill on the ball, it was long assumed that Ramsey would play a deeper role as he matured as a player, while the Englishman drifted into a more traditional playmaker role behind the striker.
Aaron Ramsey has been at his best in more advanced positions for Arsenal.
However, the opposite has happened; Wilshere’s best role is at the base of the midfield, while Ramsey is most impressive when he’s freed to rampage in the final third. Unfortunately, again due to injuries, the Wales international has often been called upon to drop back, especially in the absence of Cazorla and Coquelin.
His makeshift partnership with Mathieu Flamini earlier this year was chaotic. Neither Ramsey nor the Frenchman, who will leave Arsenal this summer, appeared to grasp the need to cover for each other as they pushed forward and chased opponents with little consideration to the space left behind them.
Xhaka is a far more robust option at the base of midfield.
Not only will Xhaka naturally provide the Welshman with back-up next time he’s forced to play deeper, but his arrival could be that the days of Ramsey even being needed to do so may be over, with the 25-year-old allowed to focus on being the best attacking midfielder he can be.