The German international’s Bernabeu contract is set to expire at the end of the season and the Gunners will feel this is a transfer opportunity they can’t ignore, as their diminutive midfield desperately calls out for some added variety. A lack of physicality, dynamism and defensive awareness in the middle of the park has already cost Arsenal against Manchester City, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund this season.
But is Khedira the right man for the job? Is he the imposing midfield anchor Arsenal clearly need? I’ll already admit my suspicions in there being suitable options out there.
There are many misconceptions about Khedira in England, specifically in regards to how and where he plays. He’s commonly referred to as a holding midfielder, but the statistics show this is a rather lazy and inaccurate categorisation.
Take a look at the heat map below for example, taken from Germany’s 7-1 thumping of Brazil during the World Cup semi-final. As you can see, the 27 year-old used his energy and strength more in a box-to-box role, impacting at both ends of the pitch and often pressing the opposition defence to win the ball high up. The deeper, holding role was adopted by Bastian Schweinsteiger instead; likewise, at Real Madrid, that task has more commonly gone to Xabi Alonso, not Khedira, over the last few seasons.
In terms of averages too, the German international’s are way below what you’d expect from even the most ordinary of Premier League defensive midfielders. During the 2012/13 campaign for example, Khedira’ last full one without prolonged injury, he averaged just 1.44 tackles and 1.16 interceptions per match. His pass completion rate was also only 81%. To put that into perspective, Tottenham enforcer Etienne Capoue has averaged three tackles and 3.3 interceptions with a pass completion of 89% this season, and Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal’s most defensive option in midfield, has averaged three tackles and 2.8 interceptions per match this season with a pass completion of 93%.
Khedira offers some enviable traits – athleticism, power and technical quality – but he lacks the discipline, both with and without the ball, and the natural defensive awareness required to anchor a midfield singlehanded, especially one with as many offensive components as Arsenal’s.
Even during his coming-of-age days at Stuttgart and the 2010 World Cup, it was Khedira’s commitment to bursting forward and linking up with the German frontline that made him stand out from the crowd – not his ability to protect the back four.
This is something Arsene Wenger has already commented on; “We were never close to signing [Khedira]. Jack Wilshere is back fit and in midfield we have offensive midfielders and quite a few box-to-box players,” the Arsenal gaffer remarked in August.
Of course, with a Champions League title and a World Cup on his CV, Khedira remains one of the most proven central midfielders in world football. In theory, he has the physical requisites for a more disciplined holding role as well as the quality and intelligence to adapt to it.
But Arsenal have been mucking around with this department for years. Mikel Arteta, although often Pirlo-esque in his ball retention, featured as commonly as a wide man as he did centrally for former club Everton, underlining his fatal flaws as a defensive midfielder in terms of positional awareness and physicality.
Likewise, Mathieu Flamini, certainly a more natural suitor and an astute acquisition on a free transfer, isn’t the calibre of player you’d expect to see starting regularly at a club that’s meant to be challenging for the Premier League title. Even Alex Song proved to be a considerably more progressive option than his 6 foot 2 frame initially suggested, and Wenger now has plans to reinvent the eternally-crocked Abou Diaby as a holding player. In truth, Arsenal haven’t possessed a genuine defensive midfielder since Gilberto Silva -he left the club in 2008.
Especially in a midfield as forward-thinking as Arsenal’s, the Gunners need a specialist as the anchor; someone who understands the role perfectly, possesses the natural requisites for it, can resultantly organise those around him and isn’t a work-in-progress.
Such a player would solve a couple of headaches for Wenger too – particularly in regards to Mesut Ozil. One can only ponder how much longer the German maestro will be an Arsenal player as he continues to dwindle out wide, but a more assured option behind would allow him licence at No.10 without compromising the shape and sturdiness of the midfield.
Khedira, although the calibre of signing that would impress the fan base and give the aura of a club moving forward – at least, within the realms of the transfer market – is not the solution to Arsenal’s intrinsic midfield flaws. His potential January move would constitute a signing based on reputation, rather than actual need.