Can Granit Xhaka provide Arsenal with the strength they need in midfield?
Since Patrick Viera left Arsenal in 2005, there has been a notable absence in the Gunners midfield. One of the greatest Premier League midfielders of all time had left a vacuum that needed to be filled. Many have tried to plug the gap of a box-to-box ball winning midfielder since Viera left, but Wenger has struggled to find the man perfect for the job. Partly down to naivety, and partly down to bad luck, it took Wenger over a decade to replace their French captain who departed over a decade ago.
The £35 million Granit Xhaka is far from a polished midfielder at current, but the 24-year-old has a lot of experience in the heart of the midfield for someone of his age, and his ability to win the ball back and take a yellow-card for the team is unquestionable. His biggest downfall is his temperament. While Arsenal have needed a fiery centre midfielder for quite some time, the game has changed rapidly since the Patrick Viera and Roy Keane era.
Xhaka received five red cards during his time at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and also struck an opponent in the face, for which he apologised; even donating €20,000 to charity as a way of saying sorry. Sending offs for dangerous challenges and second yellow cards are more frequent than ever, and Wenger will have to hone Xhaka’s aggression if he is to become pivotal in Arsenal’s midfield.
The likes of Alex Song, Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin have tried to fill the gap left by Viera. Alex Song proved to be a temporary fix but lacked the same fire and steel that Viera possessed. Diaby didn’t have the same temper or leadership skills that the former Gunners captain had but he did have the same attitude and excellent ability. His work rate, silkiness, calmness, and stability made him seem like exactly what Wenger wanted. However, the Frenchman was plagued with injury, just as Song was, and so many of Arsenal’s key midfielders have been.
Francis Coquelin’s return to Arsenal’s midfield was revolutionary during the 2014/2015 campaign, highlighted by his magnificent display alongside the versatile Santi Cazorla against Manchester City. His loan spell at Charlton Athletic had proven to be a successful one despite often being deployed on the left hand side of midfield. Wenger’s belief in him did pay off, and Coquelin remains a crucial part of the Arsenal squad. He can win the ball back better than almost anybody in the league, but lacks the same class that Xhaka possesses.
While Xhaka’s quality seemed non-existent during Euro 2016, he has more than proven himself since putting on the Arsenal shirt. Quality goals against Hull City and Nottingham Forest has made him a favourite amongst the Arsenal fans, who roar for him to shoot every time he is on the ball in the opposition’s half. His left foot is undoubtedly lethal, and while he will learn discipline from Wenger, a strike like that simply cannot be taught. The power, the ferociousness, and the accuracy of his left foot has already catapulted him into the list of the Premier League’s greatest long distance strikers of the ball.
His price tag meant there was an almost immediate pressure, but the Swiss superman seems to have thrived under the pressure, joining a core of players which is one of the best in the league. Placing him in the heart of midfield alongside Cazorla, just in front of Cech, Mustafi and Koscielny has solidified a team that is overflowing with flair. With Mesut Özil, who Xhaka has apparently got a budding bromance with, and Alexis Sanchez free to essentially do what they want, the gunners look destined for another title challenge.
No team looks head and shoulders above Arsenal thus far this season, and Liverpool are the only team who are in better form. This is partly down to Xhaka’s introduction, who seems to be a favourite amongst both players, and fans. Xhaka was exactly what Arsenal needed. He and Mustafi may well prove to be the signings that Arsene Wenger has needed for one more Premier League title before calling it a day.
There is a lot of depth in that Arsenal midfield. Aaron Ramsey provides late runs from midfield, but is also plagued by injury and lacks defensive discipline. Santi Cazorla can dictate the game better than anyone else in the Premier League but also lacks bite and energy to be a lone holding midfielder. Mohamed Elneny has a wide range of passing and is undoubtedly powerful, his biggest problem being his experience in tough leagues. Elneny remains one to watch though.
Francis Coquelin is a defensive wall, but as already discussed, is not of the same quality as Granit Xhaka. Jack Wilshere is now out on loan, and with Mathieu Flamini departing to Crystal Palace, and Mikel Arteta retiring, the stage is set perfectly for Granit Xhaka. The goals against Nottingham Forest and Hull City prove that he can be more than just a holding midfielder. He can spark pure quality out of seemingly nothing, and the ability to change the game from midfield could finally spell Premier League success for the Gunners.
There’s no doubt that Granit Xhaka is a leader. Can he prove to be the steel that finally gives Arsenal a strong enough spine to cross the finish line? It remains to be seen, but the form of both the Swiss midfielder, and Arsenal, is unquestionably strong.
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