Xhaka Can Make Arsenal Better While Kante Can’t
Reports out of Germany’s Rheinische Post, a local paper with strong ties to Borussia Mönchengladbach, have Arsenal closing in on the signing of Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka. The reported bid is supposed to be in the area of 43 million euro, which is likely to be around 33 mil upfront and the rest would be tied to bonuses.
This morning, Raphael Honigstein (one of Germany’s most respected reporters) followed up with a similar report and added Wenger was rebuffed on an earlier bid only to return with the necessary fee and that Monchengladbach are hoping to sign a replacement before announcing the deal. Xhaka has been a big target of Arsene Wenger’s for months, and he’s had to fend off interest from Liverpool and more recently Bayern Munich, who are always after top talent playing in the Bundesliga.
Assuming the transfer of Xhaka does come to fruition, the big question will be whether or not his arrival solves some of Arsenal’s nagging issues. Arsenal fans have clamored for a big name defensive midfield signing for years and Wenger has come very close to pulling the trigger in the past on the likes of Luis Gustavo, Sami Khedira, Morgan Schneidelrin, and Javi Martinez. However, with the emergence of Francis Coquelin and signing of Mohammed Elneny, some may have thought the DM position was finally sorted. Add to the fact that Arsenal have Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, and Jack Wilshere all looking to play in the central midfield role next to the DM, and it’s a crowded situation at Arsenal on the surface.
Looking a little deeper, Arsenal are expected to release Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, and Tomas Rosicky this summer. That’s three senior midfield spots up for grabs or perhaps two with the introduction of Elneny. Also, there’s some thought that the new Egyptian midfielder was bought more as a box to box option than as a DM option, but recent games showcase that he can clearly do both.
Looking at the central midfield options, Jack Wilshere is notoriously unreliable (injuries not skills people), Santi Cazorla is getting up there in age, and Aaron Ramsey’s form is sporadic at best of late. So while there seems to be a plethora of options, maybe those options aren’t exactly as enticing as they appear on the surface. Which brings us to the reason why Xhaka is likely being purchased, Arsenal do not control games anymore and Arsene Wenger likely knows this. In previous seasons with far worse squads, Arsenal played much better football, they consistently had a style that was based off of building from the back through passing moves and a high, deliberate tempo. Watching the team this season, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as a classic Arsene Wenger side.
Francis Coquelin has done a nice job since emerging from obscurity to claim the defensive midfield role, but his skills are more in the industrious side of the game rather than the controlling side of the game. When Arsenal were at their best with Coquelin in the side, Wenger played Cazorla next to him and often Ramsey wide right – that’s three positions trying to do the job of one.
Look around the game and with few exceptions, world class sides have a controller at the base of their midfield. That is what Wenger possibly hopes a gifted player like Xhaka can bring to the side, a player that can control our play all by himself AND do the industrious side of the game.
Admittedly I’ve probably seen Xhaka play less than 10 times, so I’m leaning heavily on the scouting work of others. The first thing that jumps out about the Swiss midfielder is his disciplinary record. At one point he led the Bundesliga in fouls and red cards, and in most games I’ve watched he almost always picks up a yellow (he averages one every 3 to 4 games).
Discretion is sometimes the better part of valor, but as a DM, you need to put in a challenge so this isn’t necessarily a negative as long as he works the red cards out of his game. A reporter for BT Sport described him as a “beast” that is a “walking yellow card,” but “thrives on responsibility.”
The latter statement is the one that should bring the biggest smile to the face of Arsenal fans, the squad could always use more leaders. Xhaka is practiced at building from the back as Gladbach routinely play out through him via the goalkeeper, so controlling play via a similar style at Arsenal won’t be foreign to him. Off the pitch he’s known as a responsible leader as well, routinely being available and accountable to the press even following negative results.
Arsenal have also registered interest in N’Golo Kantè and given that the Leicester sensation is Premier League proven and possibly cheaper, some may see him as the better option. Leicester play an entirely different style to Arsenal, sitting back and often conceding possession which means that the Frenchman’s skills are more in the area of ball-winning and work rate. Wenger is looking for someone in the midfield who can dictate play with clinical passing from deep in our defensive third than the typical work horse to break up play. When you have so much of the ball in the majority of your matches, does it make sense to have a midfield enforcer to break up play or a solid deep lying play maker (who can also effectively break up play if need be) who can aid in transition from defending to attack and make the clinical pass you are looking for from the midfield? This is what Xhaka can bring to Arsenal making him a better fit for the club than this year’s flavor of the season, Kante.
Looking at Xhaka compared to Coquelin and Elnenny using per 90-minute metrics, Xhaka completets .66 key passes compared to .23 for Coquelin and .23 for Elneny. He wins 3.58 aerial duels compared to 1.09 for Coquelin and .58 for Elneny. He creates .66 chances compared to .23 for Coquelin and .35 for Elnenny. His interception ratio of 2.96 is behind Coquelin’s 4.08 but ahead of Elneny’s 1.87.
The stats indicate that Xhaka brings a strong physical presence, particularly height-wise, which is something Arsenal have lacked for years in midfield, while combing excellent technical ability on the ball. If Arsene Wenger manages to land the Swiss international, the Gunners will finally have a midfield presence that will allow them to dictate, control, and dominate games in a manner that’s consistent with the sum of their overall parts.
Don’t take our word for it? Look at Bundlesliga’s Comparison between Xabi Alonso and Xhaka