It was ten years ago that Arsenal slipped in, swift and savvy, to secure the services of Tomas Rosicky from Borussia Dortmund. Having done business this early, for many of their fans the World Cup was the first glimpse they got of the Czech playmaker. The creeping intrigue turned into plain excitement after a dazzling performance against the Americans. Arsenal fans had something to cheer and shout about.
A decade later, Arsène Wenger has again shocked his fans with such an early signing – when it’s eventually confirmed. Granit Xhaka has been the antithesis of previous Wenger transfer window behaviour. Getting in just as the window opens, not playing hardball over the cost and signing a defensive midfielder.
Call it as you want but it’s a signing Wenger has been waiting a long time to make. Maybe not Xhaka in particular but this kind of player. He was happy to temporarily plug gaps in the middle and use a makeshift system to compensate for shortfalls. Coquelin was a blessing that got Wenger to the end of the 2014/15 campaign and Elneny was a forced procurement. And even then, he wasn’t exactly the type of player the Frenchman could anchor his midfield around.
That’s why the interest in William Carvalho and Adrien Rabiot was fleeting. There have been chances to solve the problems in front of the defence but not ideal ones. Granit Xhaka’s skill set is a unique one and he gives Wenger the tactical versatility that he’s needed.
Of late one of Arsenal’s most glaringly obvious but stubbornly apparent problems was not tailoring their game to the opposition. Having the 23-year-old at his disposal means that Wenger can play him with a variety of partners in the centre. Arsenal’s midfield options vary greatly and in theory should provide complementing partnerships but none that Wenger has managed to balance out evenly.
Coquelin and Cazorla worked because of the Spaniard’s natural footballing ability making up for the Frenchman’s deficiencies. As for the more box-to-box options, Ramsey and Wilshere don’t lend anywhere near enough of a hand to the defensive side. Both combative and tenacious, Wenger’s allowed them the indiscipline to waltz forwards and not peer back over their shoulders.
This is where the Swiss midfielder ties all these ill-fitting objects. He provides assured defensive cover and can play as part of a midfield trio. Something Wenger has been reluctant to do because of the personnel but also because it gives him more attackers to work with. An option he need when Giroud’s form dipped earlier this year. Welbeck was thrown in as soon as he was fit and Iwobi was introduced to prop up a temporary attacking system that was naturally less static.
Fluidity and balance is what makes the Arsenal system work and that comes through everything and everyone being in its place. Xhaka in a double pivot would help this. Between the pace, knock-downs or narrow play Arsenal, on the evidence of the last few months, aren’t settled on an attacking approach yet. By adding the flexibility of Xhaka they seem quite ready to embrace this.
Only just over a week after the end of their season, Arsenal will complete the transfer of Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach. The hard-tackling, fist-clenching, tactically astute and metronomic presence in midfield, Arsene Wenger has always wanted and Arsenal have needed is finally at the club. The Swiss midfielder of Kosovo Albanian descent will add some much needed steel and balance to Arsenal’s midfield.
Xhaka plays the pivote role and demands possession from the back three, playing delicate chips forward and looking to break the opposition’s attacking and midfield lines. The speed at which he uses the ball is imperative as he always makes good on his options, pinging long balls out to the flanks or playing quick and penetrative balls on the ground. His other strength is his ability to recycle the ball and play a through ball or chip for a teammate when his team loses possession in the attacking phase.
A 3-1 win at home to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga was a game that proved this. Xhaka was heavily involved in build-up play and heavily involved in two of the three goals as for the first he played a defence splitting pass for a cross that lead to a Jeremy Toljan own goal and for the second, he elegantly chipped for a Raffael shot that was saved as Andre Hahn laid the ball to Mahmoud Dahoud who scored. In this match, he won 3 of his 5 tackles, had an 89% pass completion rate with the two aforementioned key passes.
He also speaks very honestly as he lauded his team after their victory against Bayern Munich but criticized their and his performance after losing 5-0 to Bayer Leverkusen. He is also known for having a hot temper as 3 of his five Bundesliga red cards have come this season with 6 yellows in all competitions.
He is an emotionally charged player as he can lose his temper or use his ability to take charge of games, driving the ball forward as he is physically imposing and has a strong command of fundamental dribbling techniques. He also lacks pace but has the astute positioning and tactical understanding to cover his zones of the pitch effectively.
He is an all-action midfielder who can play as a defensive midfielder, box-to-box midfielder while he also played in the number 10 role in a counter-attacking Switzerland setup at the 2014 World Cup. According to Squawka, he has played 1831 passes at an 85% pass succession rate with 81% of these passes being forward and creating 22 chances.
He plays 7 accurate long balls forward with one pass being key as he likes to keep things ticking over but be decisive. He makes 2 tackles per game with 3 interceptions, 2 dribbles and winning 3 aerial duels while making 3 fouls a game. His coach for the Swiss National Team, Ottmar Hitzfield once compared him to ‘Bastian Schweinsteiger earlier in his career but he is more in the mould of Xabi Alonso with his hunger for the ball, ability to play long balls and physical tenacity.
This range of ability will help him settle and make the midfield a trusted part of this team again. It’s taken Wenger more time that he’d care to admit, but he finally has his ideal midfielder.