Once dubbed the ‘young Schweinsteiger’ by Ottmar Hitzfeld, Arsenal fans have been salivating at the prospect of Granit Xhaka fuelling the Arsenal engine room this season. His ability to pass the ball, crash into opponents recklessly and a willingness to sit in front of the defence made his signing one that many Arsenal fans have been craving for some time. Of course, it’s difficult to determine whether Granit can succeed at Arsenal but if anyone can…Sorry. The Euros have offered a brief snapshot of what we can expect from the midfield maestro, but it remains unknown what his role in this Arsenal team will be and who will partner him at the base of the Gunner’s midfield.
Wenger has conducted several experiments in recent years in a bid to find the perfect blend of craft, graft, grit and finesse with varying levels of success. We’ve seen an axis of Ramsey and Wilshere – which was quickly binned after a tumultuous opening day at Aston Villa a few seasons ago, neither player knowing their role well enough or willing to curb their attacking instincts for the benefit of the group. There were experimentations with Ramsey, Arteta and Flamini with scant success as passing became limited and the ability of Flamini or Arteta to sufficiently patrol the midfield came under increased scrutiny. Wenger then stumbled upon the Coquelin and Cazorla partnership, fondly named amongst Arsenal fans as the Coqzorla. There was genuine surprise amongst fans when Coquelin proved to be more than competent in the holding role – knowing that his job was to stop attacks and leave the playmaking to the more creative players. This role was originally earmarked for Alex Song but his attitude and inability to accept his limitations soon put paid to that. There was the much maligned Flamini and Coquelin alliance – both were excellent at pointing at things and saying what they saw but their partnership was never seen as a long term solution, rather a stop gap to an ever evolving problem. And finally there was the introduction of Elneny, a very capable centre midfielder who covers ground, plays quick and sometimes even incisive passes, provides a calm head in tight areas and occasionally scores against Barcelona. With the signing of Xhaka and Elneny, the return to form of Ramsey for country and the return of Coquelin and Cazorla from injury, Wenger now finds himself with an eclectic mix of midfielders that he would hope have enough between them to cope against any midfield in the league.
The first thing that Wenger must decide upon is how adventurous he plans to be with his team selection. Despite the ‘young Schweinsteiger’ proclamation – it should be acknowledged that Xhaka almost resembles today’s German captain, with criticism regarding the midfielder’s mobility casting a modicum of doubt over his signing. Whilst the phrase deceptively quick has often been proffered for players in the past, Xhaka inverts such a claim and is slower and less agile than one would expect of a 23 year old. Partnering the young man with the shrewd Santi Cazorla could cook up a delicious blend of skilful footwork and calm possession – a partnership, albeit a lite version, not too dissimilar to that of Modric and Alonso at Real circa 2013. Such a partnership would create the fusion of creativity, steel and quick thinking that Wenger has been pursuing since the departure of Fabregas. With both player less mobile than some of the other midfield candidates at the club, Arsenal could find themselves vulnerable against the more pass and rush teams of the Premier League. Neither player is a strong runner - one of the reasons why both have adopted a more reserved role in their respective teams in recent years; however, one area in which Xhaka might complement Cazorla is in his positioning, with a total of 2.7 interceptions per game compared to the Spaniard’s 1.7, the Swiss midfielder offers a safe presence in front of the defence. Not only does Xhaka interrupt opposition’s attacks, he emanates a calmness with the ball when he steals back possession. Perfomances at the Euros are indicative of how comfortable Xhaka is with the ball at his feet, almost splitting the two centre backs and taking the ball off his keeper on a regular basis – similar to how Mascherano plays for Argerntina. Whilst Wenger would prefer to keep Xhaka in the middle of the park, the injury to Mertesacker might make Xhaka’s habit of dropping deep a requirement rather than merely a compulsion.
Should Cazorla and Xhaka fail to complement each other, Wenger has the option of a more defensively orientated partnership. Coquelin has proven himself adept at providing cover for the defence, shielding them for the most part and providing a conservative option to the liberal followers of the Wenger midfield party. The inclusion of Coquelin would strengthen the defensive spine of the team, providing 2.9 interceptions per game to Xhaka’s 2.7, and 2.8 tackles per game on top of Xhaka’s 2.5. Despite their youth, both are fairly astute at sussing out threats and cutting out dangerous passes; a trait that is often missing in the modern Wenger player. Contrary to belief, Wenger has occasionally opted for a more defensively minded team against some of the stronger opponents in the league; this usually takes the form of a more restrained wide man tucking in or a defensively inclined striker; however the combination of Xhaka and Coquelin may allow Wenger to keep his creativity and pace wide whilst holding a solid middle. Where this partnership might fail is on the creative side of things; Xhaka averages a modest 85.1% pass completion rate and Coquelin a slightly higher 89.1%. Xhaka mitigates his pass completion rate by the amount of long range passes he attempts but both are fairly averse to playing any type of incisive through ball.
A neutral compromise to the inclusion of the Swiss might be the addition of Elneny; the box to box styled centre midfielder who has impressed the Arsenal faithful since his purchase in January could be an excellent foil for Xhaka’s tempered approach. Wenger was incredulous that Arsenal were able to purchase Elneny as cheaply as they did, citing “he was basically not much on the radar [for other clubs]”. However, the Egyptian might prove to be a shrewd acquisition, offering the leg work and the quick pass and move that has proved elusive to Arsenal in recent years; his ability to keep the ball ticking over and the inclination to create triangles could dovetail well with Xhaka’s calm presence and ability to pick a pass. In the run up to the end of the season, Elneny showed his composure on the ball and his ability to keep the ball moving quickly, giving the defenders little time to rest. I witnessed first hand against Everton, a game where Iwobi was named man of the match, the influence Elneny can have on the opposition by moving the ball swiftly. He constantly had his head up and rarely took more than one touch. His quick-thinking and intelligent passing moved the Everton defence left and right, creating time and space for Ozil to thread passes for the willing running of Welbeck and Iwobi.
Finally, we are left with the enigmatic Aaron Ramsey. It seems unimaginable that the Ramsey we saw at the Euros is the same one that Arsenal fans have grown accustomed to at the Emirates. His form in recent months has descended into a cruel joke: every misplaced pass, every ill-timed run and every scuffed shot has been met with shakes of the head and audible moans from the Arsenal crowd. And yet the Welsh aren’t far from throwing a carnival in his honour, celebrating the youthful exuberance that colours his displays; the freedom he enjoys in front of the solid Joe Ledley and Joe Allen corroborates Wenger’s belief that Ramsey is capable of being the player Arsenal fans grew to love in 2014. It’s possible that he’s suffering from Goldilocks syndrome and Wenger is currently tweaking the temperature of the porridge with the introduction of Xhaka; it’s worth remembering - Ramsey had his best season playing alongside the metronomic Arteta. His passing and willingness to sit proved the perfect counterpart to the Welshman’s runs from deep and ability to pick up knockdowns from Giroud and run beyond the forward man. Additionally, Wenger must be hoping that the introduction of Xhaka can displace some of the pressure on Ramsey’s shoulders and allow Ramsey to rely on his attacking instincts in the knowledge that there is a more reserved presence behind him.
This Arsenal team has a long way to go if it is to improve upon their 2nd place finish of last year; but with a midfield no longer reliant on the aging legs and tactical awareness of Arteta and Flamini, and Wenger now in possession of a Swiss army knife as opposed to the handful of cutlery he was fumbling with last year – the Arsenal manager can now concentrate on solving the issue of a goalscorer to lead the line and a worthy partner for the ever excellent Koscielny.
Til next time,