Arsenal head to Old Trafford on Wednesday for a clash with their old rivals, Manchester United. Currently on a 19-game unbeaten run, and having emphatically overcome Tottenham Hotspur last time out, the Gunners will arrive full of confidence and determined to compound their struggling opponents’ misery.
Despite recent form being on the side of the north London club though, Unai Emery will be expecting a tough game and is likely agonising over the absence of Granit Xhaka, who has been lost to suspension.
Xhaka has been a much-maligned figure for a lot of his time at the Emirates Stadium. However, the summer arrivals of Emery and new midfield partner Lucas Torreira have inspired the 70-cap Switzerland international to new heights.
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The 26-year-old performs a vital function in the heart of the Gunners’ midfield, and is usually by far his team’s most active presence on the ball. This season, Xhaka has completed 79.1 passes per game on average – Rob Holding comes closest to that figure with 64.8.
Xhaka’s metronomic presence will be hard to replace and his suspension is certainly a setback, but Emery can in fact work the midfielder’s absence to his side’s advantage.
Spurs targeted Xhaka on Sunday. Whilst the Swiss No. 34 played well, he was pressed relentlessly, meaning he could only complete 54 passes. Mauricio Pochettino’s side sought to congest Xhaka’s central midfield domain as the deep-lying playmaker is the Gunners’ preferred creative starting point for launching attacking moves.
However, Spurs’ concentration on Xhaka allowed Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac to exploit space on the flanks. Between them, the wing-backs completed 98 passes and were a constant menace going forward.
In removing Xhaka from the equation, Spurs forced Arsenal into becoming a far more unpredictable attacking force. With Xhaka ineligible from the off against Manchester United, Jose Mourinho may find his own team facing an Arsenal side who are extremely versatile going forward.
In becoming less reliant upon Xhaka, and spreading the attacking and creative burden across a range of Arsenal’s talented stars, Emery can make his side all the more difficult to second guess and defend against.