When it was announced, just before Euro 2016, Granit Xhaka’s signing for Arsenal was met with a great deal of joy. Arséne Wenger had finally opened the check book and signed a formidable central midfielder. Many fans hoped Xhaka would go on to emulate the great Patrick Vieira as the heart and soul of the team.
Still just 23, Xhaka had played over 200 senior matches for FC Basel and Borussia Mönchengladbach since scoring on his debut in the Champions League at 17. A hard-man with great ability, Xhaka arrived with a winning pedigree. Swiss champion in both his seasons with Basel, before captaining Mönchengladbach to Champions League football, Xhaka was everything Arsenal needed.
As the Euros kicked off, Arsenal fans watched Switzerland’s matches in anticipation. Xhaka’s ever-present performances did little to blunt their enthusiasm. As the deepest midfielder in Vladimir Petković’s side, Xhaka played every minute, completed over 90 passes per game and created 10 chances throughout the tournament as Switzerland conceded only two goals. Despite his influential performances, Switzerland disappointingly went out of the tournament in the first knockout round against Poland as Xhaka blazed his penalty wide of Łukasz Fabiański’s goal in the shootout loss.
Following the strongest season of his career with ‘Gladbach and a successful summer, Xhaka was expected to kick on and make his mark at Arsenal from day one. Unfortunately for the Swiss midfielder, Wenger was happy to slowly integrate Xhaka into the first team, continuing to select Francis Coquelin ahead of Arsenal’s third biggest ever signing. Xhaka started only two of Arsenal’s first six Premier League games before an injury to Coquelin against Chelsea allowed him a run in the starting XI.
Despite inconsistent form and ill-discipline, Wenger stuck by Xhaka and named him in the starting XI for ten consecutive Premier League games before his red card against Burnley led to Xhaka’s second suspension of the season. Wenger selected Xhaka almost exclusively in a double pivot alongside one of Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mohamed Elneny or Aaron Ramsey.
Xhaka’s numbers have taken a dip this season from the previous two, he is playing almost 20 fewer passes per game, his long passes are down and his overall defensive contribution is down as well. Much of this is due to his position. Wenger continually places Xhaka in a double pivot forcing Xhaka into a box to box role that doesn’t suit his strengths and often highlights his weaknesses.
Alongside the likes of Coquelin in the double pivot, Xhaka often finds himself to high up the pitch. From this higher position, Xhaka is unable to fully utilize his supreme passing ability and Arsenal’s build-up suffers because of it. Arsenal fans have seen on numerous occasions already this season that Xhaka’s lack of pace means he is unable to recover from these higher positions quickly enough, leading to fouls and chances against. While it would be fair to say that Granit Xhaka has not been a success at Arsenal so far, it would be incredibly rash to give up on him at this early stage. With four and a half years remaining on his Arsenal contract, there is time for Xhaka to succeed in the Premier League. Xhaka, took a season to settle at ‘Gladbach after his move from Basel and went on to captain the club while becoming one of the Bundesliga’s best midfielders. The Premier League is notoriously difficult to adjust to, even the mercurial Mesut Özil needed time to find his feet in an Arsenal uniform. Not all is lost for the Swiss midfield dynamo.
How can Arsenal accommodate Granit Xhaka?
In Wenger’s preferred 4-2-3-1, Arsenal’s build-up has relied heavily on Shkodran Mustafi’s passing ability. The two holding midfielders are often to square to each other to dictate play, especially against a higher press, leaving the playmaking role to the centre backs, namely Mustafi. A small tweak would allow both, Xhaka to thrive and Arsenal to benefit without changing too many things.
Xhaka should be allowed to drop deep in possession, even between the center backs if necessary and control play. This will relieve some of the pressure on Mustafi and Koscielny to start attacks, allow Xhaka’s superior passing ability to be utilized and importantly limit Xhaka’s runs forward allowing him to be in better positions when Arsenal lose the ball. This is the position and role Xhaka has been most successful in with both ‘Gladbach and Switzerland.
Playing Xhaka in the deepest midfield role also has the potential to allow Arsenal’s other midfielders to flourish. Xhaka is a player who thrives with a high level of responsibility, increasing his role in the team will simplify the role of those around him. The Xhaka/Coquelin axis has struggled in many games this season because it requires both to do things they aren’t suited to. With Xhaka in the regista role, Coquelin would be able to have a freer, box to box role, fully utilizing his ball-winning ability, similar in style to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté. At both ‘Gladbach and the national team, Xhaka has been partnered by the likes of Christoph Kramer and Valon Behrami, players, whose strengths, like Coquelin lie in defensive areas rather than on the ball.
Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny and even Jack Wilshere when he returns could also stand to benefit from Xhaka’s new role. Simplified roles for each could bring the best out of all three. With the potential of summer exits for both Özil and Cazorla, Arsenal could transition to a 4-3-3 similar to that played by Napoli or even Barcelona. A midfield consisting of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere, or Coquelin in bigger games, provides near perfect balance and contains energy and power without sacrificing ability on the ball.
Granit Xhaka’s footballing ability is unquestioned. Sadly, his poor temperament and frequent rash challenges have thus far highlighted his short time at the Emirates. If he is allowed to play in his best position, I firmly believe that Xhaka will begin to make the €45 million paid for his services look like a bargain.