Granit Xhaka’s best won’t be good enough for Arsenal next season. He will be the first of what Arsenal fans should hope will be many evolutionary casualties.
Despite leading the Premier League in their best season in nearly two decades, Arsenal are being linked with players to improve their first XI ahead of the summer transfer window. The media is wont to ramp up that speculation, but such change is also required in this Pep Guardiola world of constant evolution that Mikel Arteta now inhabits.
In a report detailing Arsenal’s ‘back-channel overtures’ to sign Declan Rice from West Ham, it was claimed that Arteta ‘will not seek to attack or build up play in exactly the same way as he has done in this campaign and he has one vision for the team where Rice’s abilities – especially his capacity for suddenly surging forward – can be a key part of that’.
The consensus is that there is only one spot available in Arsenal’s midfield: Granit Xhaka’s.
There is also agreement that this has been Xhaka’s best of seven seasons at Arsenal to date, with his seven goals comfortably his highest tally in a campaign in which both his quality and leadership has been praised to the hilt.
Despite the undue pile-on after he was deemed to be the catalyst for Liverpool’s comeback earlier this month, the analysis of his performances by both pundits and fans has been overwhelmingly positive for the first time in a career at Arsenal that has seen him tell the fans to “f*** off” and his teammates that they have no “balls”.
Arteta revealed back in December that he threatened to drop Xhaka if he didn’t “unlock the part of the brain” that would allow him to thrive in the more advanced role he’s taken up.
“We believed he has those qualities, those qualities were there to be exploited and they were hiding. The team needed those qualities very much. As I said, he is extremely intelligent, he has the physical capacity to constantly threat and occupy those spaces and recover his position quickly enough to have the balance we need. He’s been really consistent, the way he trains, the way he practises, to evolve to the demands we want for the team.”
Let’s take a beat to appreciate how brilliant the identification and execution of this role change has been by Arteta. That, ladies and gentlemen, is football management. But it’s the manager’s desire to evolve that looks set to cost Xhaka his place in the starting line-up. Because harsh though it sounds – and is given his dramatic upswing in displays this season – Xhaka’s best isn’t good enough.
Lack of evolution is stagnation in football, as Liverpool are finding out to their cost this season. It’s a mantra that’s kept Manchester City at the Premier League pinnacle throughout Guardiola’s time at the Etihad. Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling, Joao Cancelo and Aymeric Laporte – all considered to be among the elite in their time at Manchester City – have suffered as a result of Guardiola’s Darwinian tastes.
And of all the managerial traits Arteta appears to have absorbed from his mentor and taken with him to Arsenal, it’s the desire to continually progress that offers the best chance of an Arteta legacy at the Emirates. And to improve a central midfield that features arguably (though actually definitely not) the best playmaker in the Premier League in Martin Odegaard and arguably the best defensive midfielder in Thomas Partey, changing Xhaka is the only real recourse for improvement. No-one could reasonably argue that Xhaka is among the elite central midfielders in the top flight.
You could make that case for Rice, and the level to which Arteta has improved not just Xhaka but the majority of his Arsenal players suggests the West Ham captain would become a whole lot better under the Spaniard’s stewardship, and it’s easy to imagine Rice really thriving with his driving runs through midfield that are tempered under David Moyes.
Excellent though Xhaka has been, he doesn’t have that in his locker. And in a bid to keep pace with Guardiola and Manchester City, Arteta is required to make marginal gains after the giant leap of this season. Xhaka will be the first evolutionary casualty, and Arsenal fans should hope he’s not the last.