54 games into his Arsenal career and the jury’s still out on Granit Xhaka. The Switzerland international is clearly a talented player; one of his occasional long-range thunderbolts or cross-field passes is enough evidence of that; but he’s not the kind of player Arsenal fans expected when he moved to north London in summer 2016. More debonair than disciplined, more forward-looking than doggedly last-ditch, his suitability to the deepest role in Arsenal’s two-man midfield remains contentious.
Indeed, Xhaka may look to affect games from the pocket between the engine room and the defence when in possession, but he’s not the tough-tackling, attack anticipating play-breaker Arsenal have craved for so long. The 25-year-old is a technical talent first and a surprisingly creative-minded one for the role he occupies, something highlighted best by this season’s returns of 16 shots and 11 created chances from seven Premier League appearances.
Good contributions from a midfielder in theory, but contrasted worryingly by just six tackles and eight interceptions – indeed, Xhaka’s won the ball on the deck less times than he’s shot at goal for Arsenal in the top flight this season.
And yet, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that Arsene Wenger’s latest solution to the most defensive role in his midfield isn’t a particularly defensive one at all. While the rest of the Premier League has undergone an entire era of an unsung hero deployed in the Makelele role and come out the other side, Wenger has consistently fought against spending big on a defensive midfield specialist since the days of Gilberto Silva.
Instead, there are three sections in Arsenal’s defensive midfielder Venn diagram; bargain solutions like Mathieu Flamini and Mohamed Elneny, players thrust into the anchoring role despite it not being their traditional forte, which we’ll come onto imminently, and an overlap combining both. Take Mikel Arteta, for example; a playmaker and occasional wide man for Rangers and Everton signed at a cost of £10million, but almost exclusively the deepest-lying midfielder during his time at the Emirates Stadium. Throughout his three seasons in the first team, the play-breaking hopes of Arsenal’s engine room rested on a La Masia product hardly revered for defensive or physical prowess.
Even Alex Song, Arsenal’s most physically-equipped option for the position in recent years, was a centre-back who found himself pushed into midfield. Despite those natural defensive instincts, though, the powerful Cameroonian was still regularly accused of vacating his duties by venturing too far forward. His best season for Arsenal, directly leading to a move to Barcelona, wasn’t judged on how well he protected the back four, but how many assists he provided in the Premier League – eleven. Even Andrea Pirlo notched up as many just once during his five seasons at the base of Juventus’ iconic diamond.
Song represents another recurring trend in Wenger’s search for a shortcut solution in defensive midfield – using academy products like Francis Coquelin. In fact, since Gilberto Silva’s exit in 2008, excepting Xhaka, Wenger has spent a grand total of just £15million on regular first-team defensive midfield options. That’s less than he agreed in total fees for Calum Chambers, epitomising the contempt Wenger holds out-and-out defensive midfielders in.
Returning to present day, the good news is that Arsenal’s current system doesn’t require a true defensive midfielder. The physicality and ball-winning ability is provided as much from the three centre-backs behind in the 3-4-2-1 system as the two men in the engine room. It’s naturally more suiting to a midfielder like Xhaka, who is probably better-defined as a box-to-box than an anchorman.
On the other hand, a quick glance around the Premier League shows how important defensive midfielders still are. Victor Wanyama makes Tottenham’s strongest starting XI even when they’re using the 3-4-2-1 setup, Manchester United paid £40million for Nemanja Matic this summer and Chelsea often field two, albeit considerably more dynamic, in N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Even Pep Guardiola, easily the most offensive-minded manager in the Premier League, has Fernandinho operating as a midfield sweeper behind Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.
Arsenal’s options, in contrast, are Xhaka, Coquelin and Elneny – two underwhelming players who wouldn’t get into the squads at any of the other top six clubs and a £30million signing who has consistently shown he lacks the positional discipline to be considered a genuine holding midfielder. And for all the discussion over systems and extra defenders, it’s clear Arsenal still need that kind of player – their most common cause of conceding goals remains the counter-attack, which is exactly what defensive midfielders are on the pitch to stop.
In fairness, it’s hard to criticise Arsenal defensively right now. They’ve kept four straight clean sheets in the Premier League, the most notable against a direct divisional rival in Chelsea who boast an abundance of attacking quality. But as we’ve already seen this term in the 4-0 demolition at Anfield when Xhaka’s lack of positional awareness was a contributing factor, the absence of a top-class, genuine defensive midfielder will cost the Gunners dearly throughout 2017/18.