Replacing Granit Xhaka fills Arsenal's last true creative hole
By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)
For arguably the first time since his appointment nearly over two years ago, Mikel Arteta's Arsenal are looking unquestionably solid. They sit in fourth place with a fair measure of games in hand above those immediately below them—three to be precise. In the unbelievably unlikely event that we come out of those fixtures with full points, given that we play two of the top three across those fixtures, we'll be two points off third, and miles clear of the opposition.
More than that, though, Arsenal are in the enviable position of being "no-longer-shit," which is debatably far more important than actually being good. We're no-longer-shit to the point where every Twitter-based ultra who doesn't wear the badge of "Gooner" on their heart and sleeve has begun to select us for their campaigns of hatred and slander. We're so no-longer-shit, in fact, that the rare pundit who has rational and unbiased takes on the sport of football has begun to defend us against men like Jamie O'Hara and Piers Morgan, who would seek to undermine all the progress we've made under Mikel by spewing utter tripe and hoping people believe it.
Much of the success of Arteta's rebuild has stemmed from the recruitment program over the past two summers, and that is reflected in the no-longer-shit narrative. Arsenal went from shelling out "£130m on bench players," per the popular narrative adage, to apparently spending wisely and in positions of real need with real results, in just under six months. Which is wild, especially given those two sentences both report on the selfsame summer of 2021? That said, the squad is now pretty airtight, with the exception of a few positions, and as the constant striker debate rages on, I'd like to apply a different lens.
Granit Xhaka, since his arrival at London Colney, has often typified the management styles under his various bosses. Under Wenger, he was slow and sluggish, relying on all-too-few moments of brilliance to paper over gaping chasms within his overall game. Arsenal fired Wenger for very similar reasons. Under Emery, he showed similar inconsistency, especially defensively, and seemed to lose all sense of composure of discipline. From the infamous Crystal Palace moment to a rasher of reds, it wasn't exactly a spotless set of seasons for the Swiss.
Under Arteta, though, his progress has been more marked. Two separate personal remontadas have come in direct conjunction with Arsenal's greatest periods of success under their former captain, those being the double-winning Project Restart campaign, and the extent of this season too, as Arteta has shifted to a more forward-thinking 4-2-3-1, which has been morphing into the fabled 4-3-3 in recent weeks.
The switch to the 4-3-3 has had a dual effect on Xhaka. One one hand, it has minimized the areas of his game—tackling, athleticism, and speed—that so crippled his ability to fit into previous systems, while also allowing him to press higher, so that he might have a better influence on attacking proceedings, and be allowed to make space for his teammates, rather than crowding them as he so often did in his deeper role.
Though his influence on ball progression from the back has also lessened, some of us might argue that his propensity for a silly turnover, like we saw against Watford, might make such a reliance more harmful than helpful. Whatever the case, this new role certainly capitalizes on many of the issues Xhaka has typically caused within the team.
Unfortunately, and on the other hand, he doesn't look particularly comfortable in his higher role. Though he has thrived in similar positions for his home nation of Switzerland, they play a low-block 3-4-3 very similar to the system that so suited him during Project Restart, and international football is inherently more open and less well-drilled defensively than the mental and physical rigors of the Premier League. It's a system that suits Partey and Ødegaard to a tee, but has yet to be fully embraced by Xhaka.
In that sense, Arsenal have simultaneously lessened their reliance on the 29-year-old's ability to progress the ball, and found a role in which he is capable and willing, but not particularly comfortable or fun to watch. Which smacks of the need for a replacement, yet again. Think of it like a shopping list. We could use a player with Xhaka's calmness on the ball, passing range, aggression, and leadership, but also one who can create comfortably from an elevated No. 8 role, with significantly better athleticism and goal-scoring ability, and possibly without the moments of utter lunacy or complacency. Strike that, we need one. Though it may seem like a tall ask, there are options aplenty. Ruben Neves for one.
Our biggest creative hole lies within that left half-space—Ødegaard and Saka have nearly triple the creative production from the right flank in this new formation, and though Martinelli has been popping up with goals in good moments, Xhaka looks hung out to dry in that regard. This summer, replacing the Swiss international in that role is a must if this team is to continue to progress, especially with Albert Sambi Lokonga pegged to replace Partey at the No. 6, and Smith Rowe chalked out for a home on the left wing.
And in case anybody was wondering, there are more wheels than doors in the world. End of conversation, and have a great week.