I don’t know about you guys, but I will be the first to admit that I came to support Arsenal quite by chance when I was 13. Back then I knew little of club football, except for this Ruud van Nistelrooy jersey that an aunt had bought me. I also had a Ronaldo jersey, the Brazilian that is, which I actually treasured. My cousin and I happened to catch our 2005 FA Cup Final match against Manchester United, and he decided to back United so I backed Arsenal, just for kicks. I remember we were under the kosh for just about that entire game, so much so that my cousin goaded me for supporting the wrong team. By the time it got to penalties, I had actually shed tears for a team I knew next to nothing of. Of course Paul Scholes missed, Patrick Vieira tucked away the winning spot kick, and I gave away my Ruud van Nistelrooy jersey.
Ask me today why I support Arsenal, and the first answer I would give you is the style of football that the club is so synonymous with. See I did not grow up in the “1-0 to the Arsenal” era. Whenever veteran Gooners like my dad talk about the first decade of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, I sit by their feet, listen and learn. Now when I regularly began watching the Arsenal in 2006, Vieira had left, and Dennis Bergkamp had his testimonial as we moved from Highbury to the Emirates. I instead got to watch the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Aleksandr Hleb dominate the midfield every weekend; Tomas Rosicky in his pomp, when playing teams off the park was the norm. I grew up in the era of the “small, dainty, extremely technically gifted midfielders”.
In those days I would read and listen to pundits wax lyrical about how Arsenal “lacked a spine”, a “mean streak” or “physicality in the middle of the park” right before they reminisced about the steely Arsenal of old. I didn’t care much for that back then if I’m being quite honest. Which probably explains why my favourite player in our current squad is Santi Cazorla (anyone else catch that moment against Watford when he was about to take a corner with his right foot then he switched to his left?) The first statistic I always look at after a game remains ball possession, passes completed, passes in the final third, chances created, and so on.
Back to present day Arsenal. With our transfer business more or less done at this point, what part of our squad excites you the most? Questions were asked of our defence when we let in four against Liverpool (although to be fair the defensive line-up we put out on the day was hardly ideal). Questions were then asked of our attack in the aftermath of the stalemate against Leceister. We have since seen the return to first-team action of Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Ozil, a 3-1 win at Watford, an excellent shift by new signing Granit Xhaka and two new signings in Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez. Xhaka’s performance in particular drew lofty praise from several quarters.
“He is a guy who plays naturally behind the ball. He is a bit similar to Petit in the way he plays football… He has a strong engine, a good stature; he is good in the air and has a great balance to his game. He has a good short ball and a good long ball.”
With Xhaka, Santi, Aaron Ramsey, Mohammed El Neny and Francis Coquelin, Arsenal now have an abundance of talent in midfield. Not that we didn’t have it before, we did, but you get the feeling that with the additions of Xhaka and El Neny in January we have a new dimension to our play. Look we have probably not had a proper defensive midfielder since Alex Song, up until when Coquelin shocked the world on his return from Charlton in December 2014. We now have three class players in this role, and with Xhaka we have the same tenacious tackler but we have an accomplished passer of the ball as well. Watching the Arsenal play Watford got me wondering whether Arsene Wenger has actually manage to upgrade the Santi-Coquelin partnership that performed so admirably in the second half of the 2014/2015 season?
Add to this his 5 tackles (of 8 attempted), 5 ball recoveries and 2 interceptions, its evident why manager and former players alike have been crooning Xhaka’s praises. Amazingly, Xhaka did not commit a single foul against Watford either. It’s rare to see anyone match Santi’s passing stats, but Xhaka did that and then some. Now while I still believe that Coquelin is a better tackler, Xhaka is unquestionably superior on the ball. He lends more to our build-up play and has great long-range passing that adds that little extra when we need to quickly switch play, isolate full-backs against our attacking forwards or spring quick counter attacks. (He has a good long ball and is not afraid to use it? Okay I’ll stop now.)
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Ultimately Xhaka gets on the ball and passes it a lot more than Coquelin does. My hope is the knock-on effect of his play will mean that our focus on more progressive build-up through Xhaka and Santi will afford Ozil more opportunities to make runs like the one he made for Arsenal’s third goal against Watford.
At this point it’s difficult to opine what Arsene’s first-choice midfield pairing will be. El Neny and Coquelin started against Liverpool, Coquelin then partnered Xhaka against Leceister, and then Swiss national paired up with Santi. The equation will change with the return of Ramsey from injury as well, and I say it’s a welcome problem to have.
So what area of the squad excites you the most and is the Cazorla and Xhaka partnership the pairing for you?