For the most part of 2015/16, Arsenal have played with a hugely flawed midfield, a state of affairs which has imbalanced Arsene Wenger’s side in recent times, with the Gooners throwing away a potential title push with little more than a whimper.
With some quality players elsewhere, it’s been clear this season that a player more technically gifted than Francis Coquelin, more suited to acting as a sitting defensive midfielder to Aaron Ramsey, and more experience in top leagues than Mohamed Elneny is key to any potential hopes for Arsenal to step past their perennial underachievement in the league over the past decade.
In consummate fashion, Wenger has stepped up to the plate with the signing of Granit Xhaka, the Swiss international midfielder of Kosovan origin and current club captain at Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga. Just who is Arsenal’s new man, and what sort of an impact will he have on his new club?
Xhaka embodies, first and foremost, exactly what a modern midfielder should be like. With a deft touch allowing him to wriggle past opponents and operate under pressure, a delightful range of passing making it possible for his side to start attacking moves from deep, and excellent positional awareness, Xhaka has become a key component of both his club and international sides in recent years, and has been courting interest from larger sides than Borussia over the course of the past few years. With a release clause due to become active next summer, in 2017, Borussia have been forced to cash in on arguably their most important player now in order to maximise profit. The touted £30m fee is high, but considering Arsenal’s dire need for a midfield general and Borussia’s fairly strong negotiating position, seems completely fair.
Xhaka began his spell at Borussia-Park in somewhat of a baptism of fire. Aged just 19 and made to justify a price tag of roughly £6m – a lot of money for a player of that age in the Bundesliga – and was charged with replacing the presence of Schalke-bound Roman Neustädter, Borussia’s previous defensive midfielder who’d helped take the club from a struggle against relegation to the brink of the Champions League. Perhaps struggling to get to the grips with his new challenge, his first season was not the most impressive, although signs of progress were noted by then-coach Lucien Favre towards the end of the season, with the youngster training well and beginning to improve a little on the pitch. The following season, Xhaka was installed from the off as a definite starter for the side, alongside Christoph Kramer, as the Fohlenelf wowed their fans and fans of the Bundesliga with fantastic football and European qualification – no mean feat after several years of struggling against (and sometimes suffering) relegation between the mid 1990s until Favre became coach in 2011.
It was in this sophomore season that Xhaka began to influence games to the extent of being a game-winner and unshakeable presence in midfield. Some areas of weakness – primarily disciplinary – remained, with the youngster always good for a yellow card, but fans began to appreciate the midfielder’s strengths that he will take. With great ball retention – in that season and ever since, Xhaka has had a passing success rate of over 82%, despite frequently playing long balls forward under pressure from opponent players – and with excellent strength in midfield, evidenced by him completing 79% of take-ons this season. Xhaka has completed an average of over two interceptions per game this season, marking him out as a player with exceptional defensive positioning, but this hasn’t stopped him from scoring vital goals, such as against Augsburg in Borussia’s first win of the season after a five-game losing streak; the midfielder has three in total this season (and nine over his four years of service), not bad for a player who generally sits back and creates for others.
One such goal cemented Xhaka’s place in Borussia folklore: in injury time of the Rheinderby against fierce local rivals 1.FC Köln in February 2015, Xhaka nodded home a Thorgan Hazard free-kick to snatch all three points at the death. Sometimes his abrasive style, which does see him pick up a number of bookings, had been difficult to love for the Gladbach faithful; a hangover from the poor first season; since then, he’s been resoundingly popular with all fans of the club, a status he arguably earned much earlier in his spell at the club.
It is, however, this disciplinary record which is perhaps the main cause of trepidation for the transfer. This season, Xhaka saw the red card three times, and became somewhat of a target for opposition teams; in 140 appearances for the club, 35 yellow cards (as well as a further five leading to double bookings and one straight red card) do show a player with a bit of a temper, but since December, Xhaka has actually only been booked once – after being a target for physical and verbal attacks by Ingolstadt in March. Xhaka is maturing; there is a reason he was deemed captain material, after all.
That given, where does Xhaka slot in for Arsenal? Well, as the foundation of the midfield. In the not-too-distant past, Arsenal had Mikel Arteta at the hilt of their midfield, a player with a similarly artistic range of passing to Xhaka and excellent positional sense, but thanks to injury and age combining, his role in recent seasons has been severely limited. His role will now be even more than limited, with the Spaniard having left the club for pastures new at the end of the season. It is, then, understandable to understand Xhaka’s signing as a replacement for Arteta, with the departures of Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky playing very little role in Xhaka being needed by the squad, as both offer different skill-sets to the Swiss midfielder.
In this sense, it appears that Xhaka will become a fulcrum of a reshaped Arsenal midfield, in which players and their roles are more clearly defined. In a sensible world, Wenger would probably play his new man alongside Ramsey utilising the strength, power and precision of Xhaka alongside Ramsey’s energy and dynamism to re-ignite excitement at watching Arsenal play from both a partisan and neutral standpoint. This, too, would replicate Xhaka’s previous partnership with now-Leverkusen midfielder Christoph Kramer between 2013 and 2015; albeit with a more talented player alongside him – a time when Xhaka began to thrive in the Bundesliga and become his team’s leading player. Kramer offered a lot of energy and industry in midfield, as well as good passing, but lacked a little going forward, whereas Ramsey’s ability to act as a game-winner in the final third is well documented and perhaps part of the reason the Welshman has found himself shunted out wide at times. Equally, this would be similar to the Arteta-Ramsey axis of a few years ago, which began to bring the best out of Ramsey.
Playing in England has long been a dream of Xhaka, and with a bit of hard work he’s now just a few steps away from stamping his mark on the league. Can he become a leading player for the Gunners, in the same way he has at Borussia-Park? Armed with four years of top level experience, you’d have to think he’ll be absolutely key to Arsenal’s midfield for years to come.
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