Does this summer represent a natural parting of the ways between Arsenal and Granit Xhaka?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
There aren't many players as divisive as Granit Xhaka that have donned the red and white shirt in recent times. The Swiss international is either identified as a key cog in this Arsenal team that is simply irreplaceable, or he's deemed an absolutely useless waste of space that has miraculously been an ever present in this team over the past 4 and a half years. Regardless of your personal views on him, there's no denying that this Arsenal side has been far too reliant on Xhaka in recent seasons.
When deployed in a system that accommodates for his blatant limitations, Xhaka is genuinely a very dependable option. Despite the odd blip on his disciplinary record and the occasional rash moment, this erraticism that is often associated with his game is generally drawn on too often when assessing his issues. The incident against Burnley in December is a rare example of his abrasive personality spilling over into poor temper. One red card in the league since November 2016 reflects this, whilst a yellow card every 3.8 matches certainly doesn't indicate that he's overly ill-disciplined for the position that he plays in.
What ought to be analysed when picking holes in his profile are his athleticism issues, which in turn have lead to poor defensive output over the years. It's well documented that Xhaka lacks mobility, but the cost of this immobility is often not delved into. Several immobile midfielders have flourished in the Premier League as they've either adapted their game to deal with this problem or have had systems built around them to accommodate for it. The issue is not the immobility itself, but the result of this immobility.
Xhaka is often caught out in the transition. Due to his inability to move quickly and cover ground, when quick teams counter us, he's often left exposed to fast attackers. Whilst his defensive awareness and understanding of how to use his body to maximise the possibility of making a defensive interaction isn't terrible, his abrupt lack of pace means actually carrying out these interventions is difficult.
Under Arsene Wenger, the Basel-born Albanian was most regularly deployed as the deepest midfielder, alongside number eights who's primary focus was to support the attack. Whilst this still enabled him to showcase his expansive passing range and impressive ball retention, his inadequate defensive contributions left him in for criticism. This was somewhat inevitable given the system he was operating in didn't protect his deficiencies. At the same time, Arsenal didn't quite possess a player who brought his level of technical security and ball progression abilities in their squad, making him indispensable.
Under Unai Emery, Xhaka was initially deployed alongside Lucas Torreira- a natural ball winner- in what was generally a more pragmatic team. The first half of the 18/19 season thus unsurprisingly saw some of his best form in an Arsenal shirt. In the latter stages of the Emery era, however, as this double pivot partnership saw far less air time and the Spanish Head Coach's system became extremely frenetic, we saw some of the worst displays Xhaka has produced for the club.
Mikel Arteta's initial system gave Xhaka a very specific role. Our current manager favoured an inverted full-back on one side and then a very offensively minded wing-back on the other in the early stages of his reign. This left Xhaka with the role as an auxiliary left-centre-back, in which he'd drop into that left-sided role to act as a distributor from deep areas. Arteta's early Arsenal side tended to control possession and look very rigid and structured, which suited Xhaka as he could showcase his ball playing abilities and was rarely exposed in the transition. However, as Arteta's side lost some of their structure and control over matches, this role once again exposed Xhaka's defensive issues.
The system Arteta has fallen upon now is another that appears to maximise Xhaka's effectiveness. Alongside the brilliant Thomas Partey, Xhaka has been liberated not only in the psychological sense of having the sole responsibility of being Arsenal's heartbeat in possession lifted, but also tactically. With the protection Partey brings with his mobility, Xhaka has clearly been instructed to take a more aggressive part in leading a cohesive pressing unit. He's often very high up the pitch attempting to win the ball back. Xhaka in advanced positions may sound bizarre on paper, but generally his defensive engagement is very good when he's operating in smaller, more compact areas, and not when he's being run at with huge amounts of space around him. Additionally, if the opposition play through our press, having the more athletic Partey behind Xhaka to deal with the transition makes more sense.
Despite this new system perhaps inducing the best form we've seen from Xhaka thus far, this also brings me to the question presented in the title. Should we persist with a player who requires such specific tactical systems being built around him to get anything from him? Should we not be a lot more tactically flexible? Is is not possible to bring in an upgrade on Xhaka, who can not only provide everything he brings in possession but also much more?
Like with prior systems, there may come a point where something happens and this system doesn't work as effectively anymore for Xhaka. Are we going to have to tweak it once again just for him? With the increasing presence of press resistant and athletic well-rounded midfielders in Europe, it shouldn't be too difficult to identify a player who would be an instant fit for whatever system we want to implement.
As for the more general points, Xhaka will have 2 years remaining on his well paid contract in the summer, and at 28, it may well be the final opportunity we get to move him on for a reasonable price tag. Do we risk offering an extension/new deal or allowing it to go into the final year, something we've done far too often recently?
Personally, I think the summer does represent a natural parting of the ways between player and club. Xhaka has expressed his desire to return to Germany at some point, and this feels like an appropriate window. The Swiss is emblematic of a period of stagnation at this football club, so if we're serious about a rebuild, finally moving on from our reliance on him is a necessary step.