Granit Xhaka may have struggled to adapt this season, but we discuss why the Arsenal man has been written off far too early and can become a big player for Arsene Wenger.
“Granit Xhaka has been one of the worst signings of the season, maybe the worst of all time,” blurted Tony Cascarino last month. Yes, the Switzerland international, who set Arsenal back £35m – depending on what source you believe – struggled in the opening months of his time at the Emirates Stadium, but the worst signing of all time, Tony?
Can we remind you that Tottenham spent £30m on Moussa Sissoko this summer, while Chelsea once forked out £50m for a broken Fernando Torres. Xhaka is anything but the worst signing in Premier League history.
That being said, the Swiss midfielder took his time to adjust the rigours of Premier League football. In the opening months of the campaign, Xhaka’s ill-discipline continued to play on the sceptics’ minds. Indeed, five red cards since the start of last season is a record the young midfielder would prefer to leave in the past, but is an issue that plagues the 24-year-old.
Having been shown ample faith by manager Arsene Wenger in recent months, that faith is beginning to be repaid by the player. Since a move to a three-man defence last month, the Gunners’ form improved considerably, with Xhaka one of the main beneficiaries of the change in setup by Wenger.
The importance here has come in that there is less pressure on Xhaka to carry out the defensive duties that comes when playing deeper in what was Wenger’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
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Now with three centre-backs behind him, there is more of an opportunity for the former Gladbach man to utilise his passing capabilities. Xhaka’s best qualities remains his vision and distribution, which was easy to counter when he played in a double-pivot role. Now pushed further up field, Xhaka has the space and means to help spread the play and stretch opponents.
This is partly due to his change in role, but also the redeployment of those ahead of him. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez now play as a pair behind the lone striker, but neither remain stationary in the final third, with the duo handed license to drift across the pitch to open up space in attack.
As a result, Xhaka can maximise his ability pick out a team-mate in dangerous positions. Indeed, he made more accurate long balls per 90 (6.6) than any other Arsenal player in the Premier League this season, with an excellent example of his passing ability coming in the 2-0 win over Sunderland in the Gunners’ penultimate match of the campaign.
With a perfectly-weighted ball, Xhaka picked out Ozil on the left. The German then squared for Alexis to tap into an empty net as Arsenal at long last ended the staunch Sunderland resolve. It was the perfect pass leading to the pass leading to the goal from Xhaka, who has become a key cog in the Arsenal machine.
What’s been important, though, has been the pairing in the middle of the park. Key to Wenger’s system reaping the rewards is finding the right balance in midfield, which he has managed to by playing Aaron Ramsey alongside Xhaka.
Ramsey provides the surging runs from deep into the space that Ozil and Alexis free up when they pull wide. With Francis Coquelin alongside the Swiss ace, there is a lack of attacking drive from deep and, as such, Arsenal’s attacks often break down as both the Frenchman and Xhaka opt against pushing forward in support. This leaves a huge gap between the two banks of midfield, while Arsenal then lack the energetic central midfielder to occupy the opposition holding midfielder.
As a result, Arsenal are pushed back and are far more prone to conceding as pressure is heaped on their goal. It’s little shock, then, that Arsenal have failed to win just one of the eight games that Ramsey and Xhaka have started together since the 2-1 win at Middlesbrough in mid-April, the first game Wenger implemented a three-man defence this season.
With Ramsey keeping opposing midfielders at bay, Xhaka can then spread the play with consummate ease, thus helping Arsenal dominate in the middle of the park and further upfield, much as they did in the 2-1 FA Cup win at Wembley on Saturday.
It’s a small sample size, of course, but Xhaka proved just how effective a signing he can be when deployed in a setup that suits him.
While that means Wenger has to build a team around the midfielder, they could do a lot worse to ensure the Switzerland star has the necessary time and space on the ball to help the Gunners to victory as and where required.
By Ben McAleer (@BenMcAleer1)