Granit Xhaka gave an authoritative and influential display in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Watford on Saturday, suggesting that the Gunners may have finally found their ideal defensive midfielder. The role has changed massively in recent seasons. As little as 10 years ago, Europe’s best preferred a destructive force at the base of their midfield; Claude Makelele, Gilberto Silva, Javier Mascherano and Gennaro Gattuso just a few examples. They were; as Eric Cantona once labelled Didier Deschamp, ‘water carriers’ who focused on breaking up opposition moves before giving the ball to their team’s more talented players.
Currently however, the teams who consistently reach the latter stages of the Champions League have constructive, ‘directional’ players at the base of their midfield; Toni Kroos, Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo, or Sergio Busquets (Casemiro at Real Madrid bucks the trend slightly) – quarterbacks rather than water carriers. Xhaka is one of the new breed.
Fashion and trend may have dictated this development, but the main reason behind this shift in emphasis is the ubiquity of pressing as a tactic. Right down to the lower reaches of Europe’s top divisions, most teams now have the physical potential to press aggressively and for long periods of a match. Put simply, it is becoming harder to carry a traditional ‘water carrier’ if they cannot handle the ball while under opposition pressure. Teams will target them as a weak link and force them back or into errors.
Arsenal have found this out on recent trips to Tottenham and Liverpool where, at least in the first 45 minutes, The Gunners were forced to surrender possession time and time again because the likes of Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Flamini were uncomfortable playing under pressure.
Xhaka has been brought in to alleviate this problem. Arsene Wenger praised his ‘calmness’ after Saturday’s game, and it is a noticeable feature of his style. Xhaka is a great looking footballer, not in the David Ginola or Patrick Berger sense, but he cuts an imposing figure on the field of play. Added to that, he is heavily left-footed which for some reason always seems more stylish, and will prompt Gooners to draw comparison with Emmanuel Petit.
Xhaka completed 87% of his passes against Watford, and made more passes than any other Arsenal player. He has been brought in to add defensive steel also, and made five ball recoveries while winning four of seven tackles. However, this side of his game is likely to be given a sterner test in other matches.
Wenger also wants Xhaka to help Arsenal break down deep-lying defences through his range of passing. Arsenal scored only 31 home goals last season, with four of those coming against relegated Aston Villa on the last day. Their best spell of form in recent memory came between the end of the 2014-15 season and the first few months of last season, with a midfield axis of Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. Though their partnership was part of a good spell of form, it was not without its limitations.
Essentially Coquelin and Cazorla combined to do with work that one high class defensive midfielder could do; Coquelin won the ball back and Cazorla distributed it and got Arsenal out of trouble. Against deep-lying defences however, this formula meant that Arsenal had two midfielders behind the ball. Against the ‘lesser sides’, one of these ought to be getting into the box or linking play between the lines. Arsenal lost at home to Monaco, West Ham and drew with Swansea City and Sunderland with this midfield pairing.
Xhaka’s ability to switch play quickly and find Arsenal’s forwards with lengthy passes over the top gives their play a whole new dimension. The Swiss international was successful with six of his nine attempted long passes. Just before half time against Watford, Xhaka found Theo Walcott with a 40-yard pass that landed with some backspin to take the ball back into Walcott’s path.
Many were puzzled by Arsenal’s pursuit of Jamie Vardy earlier this summer, questioning whether he and Arsenal were right for each other stylistically. Some of those reservations remain valid, but when you watch Xhaka’s ability to play long and early, it begins to make a little more sense. Wenger may have envisaged recreating the relationship Vardy had with Danny Drinkwater. Instead, Xhaka might be seeking out the runs of Lucas Perez.
Overall, Xhaka looks like he can add something to Arsenal that was previously missing; the definition of a good singing. Better opponents will test his defensive skills and positional awareness, so it is premature for Arsenal fans to hail him as a saviour. When it comes to his ability with the ball however, he looks an exciting prospect.
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