“Granit Xhaka has been one of the worst signings of the season, maybe the worst of all time,” blurted Tony Cascarino last month. This from a man who believes Per Mertesacker was Arsenal’s Player of the Season. He doesn’t do middle ground, clearly.
Yes, Xhaka, who set Arsenal back around £35m last summer, struggled in the opening months of his time at the Emirates Stadium. But the worst signing of all time? Tottenham spent £30m on Moussa Sissoko, while Chelsea once forked out £50m for a broken Fernando Torres. Xhaka is not even close to the worst signing in Premier League history.
That being said, the Swiss midfielder took his time to adjust the rigours of English football. In the opening months of the campaign, Xhaka’s ill-discipline continued to play on the sceptics’ minds. Five red cards since the start of last season is a record the young midfielder would prefer to leave in the past, but it is an issue that plagues him. Having been shown ample faith by Arsene Wenger since the beginning, he is slowly but surely starting to repay the manager. Since a move to a three-man defence last month, the Gunners’ form improved considerably, with Xhaka one of the main beneficiaries of the tactical change.
The importance here is that there is less pressure on Xhaka to carry out the defensive duties that come when playing deeper in what was Wenger’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. With three centre-backs behind him, there is more of an opportunity for the former Gladbach man to utilise his passing capabilities. Xhaka’s best qualities are his vision and distribution, which were easy to counter when he played in a double-pivot role. Now pushed further up field, he has the space and means to help spread the play and stretch opponents.
This is partly due to his own change in role, but also of those ahead of him. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez now play in a pair behind the lone striker, but neither remain stationary in the final third, with the duo handed license to drift and open up space in attack. As a result, Xhaka can maximise his ability pick out a teammate in dangerous positions. He made more accurate long balls per 90 minutes (6.6) than any other Arsenal player in the Premier League this season, with an excellent example of his passing ability coming in the 2-0 win over Sunderland in the Gunners’ penultimate match of the campaign.
With a perfectly weighted ball, Xhaka picked out Ozil on the left. The German then squared for Sanchez to tap into an empty net as Arsenal at long last ended a staunch Sunderland resolve. It was the perfect pass leading to an assist from Xhaka, who has become a key cog in the Arsenal machine. But what’s been important is the pairing in the middle of the park. Key to Wenger’s system reaping the rewards is finding the right balance in midfield, which he has managed by playing Aaron Ramsey alongside Xhaka.
Ramsey provides the surging runs from deep into the space that Ozil and Sanchez free up when they pull wide. With Francis Coquelin alongside the Swiss ace, there is a lack of forward drives from deep and, as such, Arsenal’s attacks often break down as both the Frenchman and Xhaka opt against pushing forward in support. This leaves a huge gap between the two banks of midfield, and Arsenal then lack the energetic central midfielder to occupy the opposition holding midfielder. As a result, the Gunners are pushed back and are far more prone to conceding under increased pressure. It’s little shock then that Arsenal have failed to win just one of the eight games that Ramsey and Xhaka have started together since the 2-1 win at Middlesbrough in mid-April, the first game in which Wenger implemented a three-man defence this season.
With Ramsey keeping opposing midfielders at bay, Xhaka can then spread the play with consummate ease, thus helping Arsenal dominate in the middle of the park and further upfield, much as they did in the 2-1 FA Cup final win at Wembley on Saturday. It’s a small sample size, but Xhaka proved just how effective a signing he can be when deployed in a system that suits him. While that means Wenger has to build a team around the midfielder, they could do a lot worse to ensure the Switzerland star has the necessary time and space on the ball to help the Gunners to success.
Ben McAleer – @BenMcAleer1