Teams park bus at EURO 16 but Xhaka shines – is he the key to Arsenal success?

I watched the majority of EURO 2016 games so far and I was far from impressed, I must admit: so-called big teams look happy to give possession to their opponents and wait for the good opportunity on the counter, exploiting one moment of brilliance from one of their players.

It’s made for a pretty even playing field – it would be hard to call a winner at this stage. (If you think you can predict the Euro Champion for 2016, then take advantage of a free £50 bet using NetBet. You can find help on how to use the netbet promo code here…)

Spain dominated Turkey

Spain dominated Turkey
{Getty Images}

I haven’t seen any team dominating the game, imposing their style over their opponents – with the exception of Spain and Germany versus Turkey and Poland, respectively.

Italy happily sat deep to surprise Belgium with floating balls over the defensive line, France allowed Switzerland to dictate the play and didn’t press their opponents, preferring to increase density in their third and aiming to intercept the ball to hit on the break with Sissoko and Griezmann’s speed.

Wales did it quite a lot in their opening and against England, expecting Bale and Robson-Kanu to stretch the opponents’ defensive line as much as possible, so did England once Jamie Vardy was introduced, during their second game and against Slovakia – although sporadically.

This kind of strategy should sound very familiar to any Gooner who witnessed the early years of Arsène Wenger’s reign, however it’s been roughly ten years already since we switched to a slower, more possession-oriented football.

Are EURO 2016 and the signing of Granit Xhaka suggesting that things are going backwards?

Granit Xhaka

Granit Xhaka

The Swiss put on a true masterclass display against France and have shone in each of their first three games – playing educated, mature and silky football made of smart interceptions, sharp distribution and gorgeous long balls; Xhaka patrolled his area with composure and authority, he protected his back-four line with discipline and let two all-round midfielders like Valon Berhami and Blerim Dzemaili link defense and attack.

The question is: what will his position be at the Arsenal?

So far, our formation included a disruptive midfielder and a distributor, both sitting quite deeply in our half and rarely participating to the attacking phase; prior to his injury, Santi Cazorla was the man to build moves from the back, collecting the ball from our centre-backs and moving it higher on the pitch, where Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey would supply Olivier Giroud and play combinations; however, when the little Spanish genius got injured, Arsène Wenger struggled to find a proper deep-lying midfielder and our team looked disjointed, filled with runners whose discipline didn’t look impressive *Ramsey…cough, cough*

Although Mohamed Elneny did well in that position, the team really struggled to produce proper football and create chances, also because Francis Coquelin is all but someone who would dictate play; he’s very good at what he’s good at – tackling and celebrating – but he’s definitely not a playmaker and we cannot ask him to be the hub of our game.

Can Granit Xhaka be the man who convinces Arsène Wenger to change our way of playing, like Cesc Fàbregas did a few years back?

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At the time the young Spaniard started playing a major role in our XI, it seemed impossible that Arsène Wenger would even consider moving away from him preferred and successful 4-4-2 formation; he used to pair Cesc Fàbregas with Mathieu Flamini through the middle, with Alex Hleb on the right and Tomas Rosicky on the left – and Thierry Henry and Emmanuel Adebayor upfront.

It seemed impossible that anything would change but Arsène Wenger decided to move the former Barcelona youngster higher on the pitch, and suddenly we were playing a 4-2-3-1 formation – although with mixed results.

Moving to a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 formation looks now as improbable as switching to 4-2-3-1 looked back then: we have the best #10 in the world, we have Santi Cazorla back from injury and ready to play his role and we have been playing the same formation for almost ten years.

However, the way Arsène Wenger is building his midfield suggests that the Arsenal next season will be more flexible and changing than ever: with Granit Xhaka as our cornerstone, fellow central midfielders like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mesut Özil will have a lot of freedom to move forward and create chances, as well as finish themselves with darting runs.

As well as allowing freedom for his partners, the former Borussia Mönchenglädbach man is suitable to play alongside a more defensive midfielder and dictate the play from a higher position, which would make him the perfect partner for any of our midfielders.

Little Spanish genius - Santi Cazorla

Little Spanish genius – Santi Cazorla

I can easily imagine the manager pairing Granit Xhaka with Santi Cazorla for home games against opponents who sat in their half and reduce spaces: the former would ping the runs of his teammates with his remarkable long balls, while the latter would work to break the lines with quick combinations around the box; also, I can see the Swiss play behind Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere when facing more audacious opponents, who press higher on the pitch and would increase the chances of witnessing one of those old, exciting end-to-end games: the Swiss will sit in front of the defensive line to win the ball back and quickly distribute it to our runners, who would transform the action into a lethal counter attack; finally, Granit Xhaka could also be a sort of American football quarterback, playing alongside two conservative midfielders like Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla or Mohamed Elneny: for those games were we are likely to be under pressure and need to reduce spaces, having this kind of midfield trio would help absorbing our opponents’ waves of attack and use long balls to feed wide players like Alexis Sánchez, Alex Iwobi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott (yes, he will still be around next year!) or a quick, clinical striker capable of running behind the defensive line.

It’s no surprise we are/were/will be after someone like Jamie Vardy, in that sense, but that man could also be Alexis Sánchez, Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck, once he recovers from his injury.

We have options, we have choices, we have opportunities to become less predictable and more dangerous for any opponent – let’s see how next season folds!


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