Should Emery Persist in Playing Granit Xhaka?
The story of the North London Derby was that unforced errors cost Arsenal a valuable two points. Gifting goals to the opposition is quite obviously a recipe for disaster. This has been happening all too frequently for Arsenal and it really is time that something was done to combat this problem. Granit Xhaka has been at the heart of a lot of these issues for Arsenal since his arrival in 2016.
Xhaka has been a constant in the Arsenal team under both Arsene Wenger and now Unai Emery. It was, however, his rash challenge on Son Heung-min which gave Arsenal a mountain to climb as Harry Kane dispatched the penalty to give Tottenham a two-goal lead at the Emirates last Sunday.
Arsenal showed great fight and spirit to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat. This point could prove a vital one come the end of the season in the fight for a top-four finish but it could have been all three points if Arsenal hadn’t been the architects of their own downfall. A completely unnecessary challenge from Xhaka at a pivotal point in the game put Spurs in a fantastic position after a combination of Sokratis and Leno were at fault for Spurs’ opener. These errors have been an all too familiar sight for Arsenal fans over the last three years and it’s something which cannot continue if Arsenal are going to be successful moving forward.
A statistic emerged in the aftermath of the North London Derby which while it was not entirely surprising, it was still jarring to read as an Arsenal supporter. That stat is that since the Premier League started tracking “mistakes directly leading to goals” only three players have committed more of these errors than Granit Xhaka. Only Gary Cahill, Martin Skrtel and Joleon Lescott have made more errors than Xhaka in the Premier League. This is astounding when you consider that this is only the Swiss midfielder’s fourth season in English football. No team is good enough to cope with a player consistently gifting goals to the opposition. Particularly, if the player in question is a first-choice option in a vital position.
So as to add some balance and not completely bash Xhaka in this piece. He does have a fantastic left foot and very impressive passing range. These attributes have no question helped Arsenal during his time at the club with Xhaka scoring some wonderful goals and putting in some excellent performances. The defensive side of Xhaka’s game, however, leaves an incredible amount to be desired.
In the North London Derby on Sunday, Granit Xhaka committed seven fouls. Many of these were unnecessary and only gave Tottenham a chance to take the sting out of the game and give their backline a breather. This killed the attacking momentum Arsenal had built up following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser.
Even with the footballing ability Xhaka has, there are drawbacks to his game from an attacking standpoint also. He, at times, takes too long to move the ball and can halt the momentum of counter-attacks. A higher energy player being deployed in this position could help Arsenal, not only defensively but provide more opportunities for the Arsenal front-line to attack defences before they are able to get set.
As the great Paolo Maldini once said: “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake”. This is a sentiment that appears to be lost on Xhaka. The majority of Xhaka’s fouls at the Emirates last Sunday could have been eliminated if he possessed the defensive instincts and positional sense of a Kante or a Fabinho, his contemporaries in this position. He almost constantly seemed to be tripping opponents who have gotten the wrong side of him or trying to tackle from behind which you never see the top holding midfielders doing.
Xhaka has conceded five penalties in his three years at Arsenal and been directly at fault for 11 goals. This is unsustainable for any team. While Arsenal are lucky to be blessed with the attacking talent in the squad, you cannot continuously ask these players to dig you out of a hole. In particular, a hole which you’ve dug for yourself.
Since Gilberto Silva left the club, Arsenal have been crying out for a leader, with good defensive instincts in this sitting midfield role. There is no one player in the current squad who fits this role perfectly. This role requires a player capable of taking the ball from the back four and setting up attacks but this should be second to the defensive responsibilities of the role. Xhaka has been given this role since his arrival from Borrusia Mönchengladbach and really hasn’t excelled.
The problem for Unai Emery and Arsenal is who to replace Granit Xhaka with in this role. I don’t think Arsenal have one ideal candidate for this role but Xhaka is probably doing as much harm as good in the side currently. If Emery does wish to operate with the same set-up, I think Matteo Guendouzi is the best man for the job. Guendouzi has been outstanding for Arsenal so far this season. His display against Tottenham was quite possibly his best in an Arsenal shirt. Guendouzi had seven ball recoveries, two interceptions and two successful tackles in the game at the Emirates. I really believe he has all the ability to make this position his own. At the young age of 20, the French midfielder has all the time in the world to maybe improve on his defensive discipline and become the anchor of this Arsenal midfield moving forward. His energy is infectious and he is absolutely fearless when it comes to getting on the ball and starting attacks.
The best solution overall for Arsenal is probably to use multiple players to get the job done more efficiently and to provide Arsenal with greater attacking impetus from the holding midfield position. A tandem of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira or Dani Ceballos could be the best solution. You would not sacrifice any of the footballing ability in the position in an attacking sense and the more tenacious, high energy Guendouzi and Torreira could provide greater protection for the backline. Xhaka can still feature in this setup but I do not believe he has the defensive instinct necessary to play this position for Arsenal as the sole holding midfielder.
I’m not completely ruling out Xhaka in terms of contributing to Arsenal and don’t want to make him into a scapegoat for any time Arsenal under-perform. Xhaka though must cut out these unforced errors and rash challenges if he wants to maintain his place in the team.