Why Granit Xhaka must not start for Arsenal this season.
Before I start, I just want to be clear. I do not think that Granit Xhaka is a bad player. In fact, I like him, and think he has improved season upon season. At Arsenal, however, he creates more problems than he solves.
The hundred club
Since Granit Xhaka signed for the club in 2016, he has made 101 league appearances, returning seven goals and eleven assists. Six goal contributions a season. This suggests that he’s more of a ball progressor than a deep creator. Indeed, he is usually the man Arsenal look to advance the ball up the pitch through, often finding himself between the centre-backs. Because of this, he has found himself in a key role under both Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery.
Xhaka is almost like an NFL quarterback, looking to launch passes (generally out wide) with his sweet left foot. Like an NFL quarterback, however, he needs protection. He is not at all press-resistant and is not mobile enough to defend by himself. This is where the problem starts.
Last season’s Xhaka – Torreira pivot:
At the beginning of the 2018/19 season, Arsenal invested in Uruguayan defensive-midfielder Lucas Torreira, splashing out 26 million pounds to bring him to the Emirates. Finally, it seemed, we had secured the perfect foil for Xhaka. A tough-tackling, body on the line defensive player.
In solving one issue, Arsenal inadvertently created another. Torreira averaged just forty-five passes per match and tended not to advance the ball very much. Effectively, Arsenal had one mobile defensive-midfielder and one immobile “defensive” midfielder who favoured passing out wide. Xhaka’s defensive numbers were not actually too bad since his immobility was covered by Torreira, but both occupied defensive roles. This left a gaping hole in terms of ball progression through the centre of the pitch. This was occasionally, but sporadically, filled by Aaron Ramsey, but this left Arsenal defensively more vulnerable.
The number of times which you watched the ball passed from one side, back to Xhaka, then out to the other, were countless. The result of this was predictable; Arsenal looked lost for ideas for large chunks of the season, relying on individual brilliance from their two strikers. It is no coincidence that Arsenal would have finished 7th based on expected points. They simply did not create enough.
The Mesut Ozil issue
I think it is safe to say that Mesut Ozil did not enjoy his best season in the 2018/19 campaign. Arsenal’s best creator often found himself sidelined by Emery, and when he did play he was regularly ineffective. Personally, I feel that he was played in a system not suited to his talents and his poor performances were unfairly scapegoated by Emery.
Playing as the attacking midfield role in a 4231, he found the pitch congested by both Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom favoured drifting inside from their nominal wide-positions. Equally, the lack of ball progression in the double pivot behind him forced him to come deep to receive the ball, a position to which he is not suited. Running through the lines is not, and never has been Ozil’s strength. He can do it, as his performance against Leicester illustrated, but he will be inconsistent.
He is far more effective receiving the ball in the final third and looking to play the killer pass. The summer addition of willing runner Nicolas Pepe, as well as Aubameyang’s deployment on the left-hand side, will help him in this regard, but he will need the ball.
Arsenal may have unintentionally solved the issue of ball-progression over the summer with the deadline-day acquisition of David Luiz. The 32-year-old Brazilian is certainly error-prone, but equally is a fantastic passer of the ball, as he showed last season. With David Luiz’s exceptional ability to begin attacks from centre-back, I can’t help but question how much Arsenal need both Luiz and Xhaka, who largely perform the same job. In Xhaka’s stead, Unai Emery could utilise a forward-thinking dribbler next to Torreira.
Enter Dani Ceballos. It is true that the Real Madrid loanee offers a more limited passing range than Granit Xhaka. However, where Ceballos really stands out is ball progression. He averaged 1.4 successful dribbles per 90 whilst in the Spanish capital, and tends to find himself at the heart of attacks.
Ceballos offers less defensively than his Swiss counterpart, but as a much more mobile player, he could work well in a double-pivot with the equally mobile Lucas Torreira. With Torreira as a traditional defensive-minded no.6, Ceballos as a dribbling no.8, getting the ball into the final third would be far easier.
Equally, it would offer support to Mesut Ozil, who would, in turn, be free to play a traditional no.10 role, as he was previously used to doing. It is no coincidence that Mesut had his best games in an Arsenal shirt when Santi Cazorla was dictating play from deep and Alexis Sanchez was making runs in behind. Ceballos,
Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can offer the mercurial German the same sort of resources, it will just be a question as to whether he can utilise them effectively. If he cannot, an alternative would be to progress Ceballos into the no.10 role and to start Joe Willock or Matteo Guendouzi in the no.8 position. The potentially world-Class option must be tried first though.
Arsenal’s Best Midfield?
In my opinion, playing Granit Xhaka at home is a waste of time, especially against inferior sides. For a more compact system in tough away games, he is a useful player, but he is very one-dimensional. Xhaka’s passing range is undeniable, but with the addition of David Luiz, he is not the only one with such ability in the squad anymore. In terms of what you can measure (i.e. not leadership), he offers little else unique.
In playing Xhaka, you are forced to play a defensively-minded player next to him, such as Torreira. Both are similar in terms of mindset, if not skill-set. Neither likes to advance up the pitch particularly far, meaning that the gap between the back seven and front four is often vast, and attacks have to slow down to gain support.
By replacing Xhaka with Ceballos, Arsenal would largely negate this issue, whilst through Luiz keeping the passing range which Xhaka offers. In turn, this would allow Mesut Ozil to return to his favoured position and role, which may get the best out of the much-maligned German international. An in-form Ozil, combined with Pepe, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette would terrify any defence.
As much as I love Granit Xhaka and his wand of a left-foot, dropping him seems like the best way to get the most out of our current squad. It is not because he is a bad player, rather that Arsenal do not have the midfielders to cover his shortcomings.
In this transition phase, optimising squad performance is key, until the entire overhaul has occurred. Benching Xhaka would provide much-needed energy into the midfield. That being said, Unai Emery will almost certainly persist with the Swiss.
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