So far this season, Granit Xhaka has started every single one of Unai Emery’s first four games in charge of Arsenal. The new boss at the Emirates Stadium, it would seem, shares the faith that his predecessor, Arsene Wenger, also held in the Switzerland international’s capabilities.
The 25-year-old is not so universally popular amongst Arsenal fans though. Recently, against Cardiff City, it was Xhaka’s carelessness in possession which ultimately led to the Welsh outfit scoring a goal.
There are certainly deficiencies in the midfielder’s game. His lack of mobility and tendency to lapse in his defensive duties often sees the Gunners come under pressure. Yet, there are benefits to his enduring inclusion in the Arsenal starting XI.
A pattern has emerged over the last year or so of Xhaka giving the ball away and Arsenal immediately being punished very severely for it. The aforementioned Cardiff incident is far from the first time that a Xhaka error has led to his side conceding a goal. Generally, though, he is very tidy in possession. At the Cardiff City Stadium, Xhaka completed 99 passes – far more than any other player on the pitch. He also registered an impressive pass completion rate of 85.9%. Those figures include an assist, three key passes and six accurate long balls out of seven attempted.
Arsenal do not have another player in their ranks capable of regularly racking up those kind of passing figures, making Xhaka the default heartbeat of the Gunners’ engine room. A side such as Arsenal, who are used to having lots of possession and are increasingly prone to building moves from the back, must have a metronomic, tidy midfield presence such as Xhaka. As the only player of his kind in the squad, the Swiss is undroppable and, at this time, irreplaceable.
Considering that Xhaka is almost certain to be a fixture in Emery’s team until January at least, and probably beyond then too, the Spanish coach must devise a system that minimises the negative impact of having the former Borussia Monchengladbach man out on the pitch.
Whilst Arsenal do not currently boast the necessary alternative options to replace Xhaka, they do have the kind of players at their disposal who can be brought in to protect and support the man with 67 senior international caps.
In summer signing Lucas Torreira, Emery has potentially found the perfect midfield partner for Xhaka. In football, strong partnerships are formed when players whose strengths compensate for one anothers’ weaknesses are able to form a cohesive relationship. On paper, Xhaka and Torreira’s respective attributes ought to allow the pair to form an effective pairing on the pitch.
The Uruguayan’s defensive diligence, positioning, tenacity and pace could potentially make up for Xhaka’s inability to resolutely and consistently shield the Arsenal back line. Equally, Torreira’s excellent close control, confident dribbling and penchant for escaping congested situations with either the ball at his feet to by drawing a foul would offer Emery’s side an alternative method of relieving pressure to that of being wholly reliant upon Xhaka’s expansive range of passing.
Equally, the security provided by Torreira’s presence would grant Xhaka license to advance further up the pitch where can become a more potent creative threat without leaving the Gunners’ rearguard exposed and overly vulnerable to counterattacks. Aaron Ramsey’s persistent desire to get into the opposition penalty area, coupled with Xhaka’s lack of recovery pace, is why they could never form a successful two-man partnership at the Emirates.
The inclusion of Torreira is not the only method Emery can employ in order to get the best out of Xhaka though. Switching to a more conservative three-man midfield set up, with the current No. 10 role being withdrawn into a deeper position, would also ease the burden currently on Xhaka.
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Simply having an extra man in the middle of the park would reduce the amount of ground that each individual central-midfielder would be responsible for covering. Again, this would offset Xhaka’s deficiencies when it comes to getting about the pitch.
Alternatively, in order to get the best out of Xhaka, Emery could reintroduce the three-at-the-back system that Wenger found some success with a couple of seasons ago. Doing so would give the heart of the back line greater numbers with which to cope with counter attacks or any opposition players who evade Xhaka. Lightening the initial defensive load on the midfield as a whole could be the key to ensuring that Xhaka doesn’t crumble beneath the burden of it.
Finally, in order for Arsenal’s midfield contingent to come under less pressure, the squad as a whole must improve their implementation of the high pressing system that Emery is seeking to introduce at the club.
As things stand, the team have not yet mastered this method of defending from the front, which causes their pressing front line to be too easy to play around and also leaves gaping spaces in the middle of the park for opponents to exploit.
However, improvement in this area can only come with patience and repetition. If Emery proves successful in his deployment of a hard pressing tactic then the Gunners’ midfielders should suddenly find themselves better protected by their teammates ahead of them. Equally, those more advanced players must also be willing to track back and contribute their own efforts to the defence.
If those two objectives can be achieved then Emery’s side will begin to not only function far better as a whole, but we can also expect to finally see the best of Xhaka.