It seems that Grant Xhaka is the current Arsenal first teamer facing the scrutiny of a ‘hard to please’ Gooner fanbase. This may well be largely because of what he isn’t rather than what he is. Whether Wenger sold us on an idea, other ‘knowledgeable’ fans on social media did or the media did, the Swiss international is NOT a defensive midfielder. No he is far more a deep-lying passer in the Mikel Arteta mould and so he is being overly criticised for not being something he never was.
Now there are many points of discussion that emerge from this realisation, not least of which is why does Wenger continually ignore what we need to buy more of what we don’t necessarily need? Why buy a midfielder who can only be effective in a certain formation of with certain other types of player. No one ever minded which two from Parlour, Edu, Gilberto of Vieira played together because whilst all individually had certain attributes they could all adapt to either role as the team required it.
I do not wish to cover the well-trodden ground of the difference between a specialist defensive midfielder and physical presence, ‘Beast’, in the centre of the pitch but what seems apparent to me, is that is we are to play with a two man midfield, one of which is Ramsey or even Wilshere the other probably needs to be both. If we are to continue as we are with Xhaka as the deeper of a two then we need to revert to the three man defence. The Swiss fall guy, is simply not agile or mobile enough to play that role in the 4231. Playing him left in a three, as Switzerland do might work but that structure pushes Ozil wider and surely nobody feels and team should happy for Xhaka’s failings at the expense of Mesut.
The simple fact is that right now Xkaka is not swift enough of foot or mind to play as a defensive midfielder in a two. Better football minds than my own have argued that the very best specialist DMs were not necessarily quick across the pitch, which I accept but if you do not have the physical mobility then the game understanding, anticipation and intelligence has to be first class. At present Xhaka is not demonstrating he has that sharpness of mind to compensate for his lack of sharpness on the ground.
Back in in 2012 I wrote a much ridiculed article, suggesting that Arteta should move back and play the defensive role ahead of Song and the following season he did just that. His partnership with Ramsey assisted the club to end a nine year wait for a trophy in 13/14 and the Spaniard playing that role became on pitch leader and temp setter. Now it may be unfair to compare a senior 30 year old professional with a 25 year old, but Xhaka has captained his previous club and his country.
Arteta, like his present day counterpart, had a superb passing range and was able to set the tempo with his metronomic precision passing but unlike Xhaka he had the ability to read the game far better and sense danger. Obviously, latterly, with his legs gone entirely, this speed of mind was not enough but initially he excelled in the role. I thought it might be interesting to compare Arteta in 13/14 to Xhaka this season to push home the point.
With regard to passing, so far this season Xhaka makes on average of 83 passes a match in the Premier League and 86% of them are successful. Arteta in 13/14 made an average of 69 passes a game with a fabulous 92% completion rate. When it comes to key passes Xkaka edges it with 1 per game against Arteta’s 0.6. Both demonstrate admirable long ball ability with the Swiss at 5.1 per game and the Spaniard at 4.6.
However for the deepest central midfielder the defensive attributes are of course key and this is where the comparison well illustrates where Xhaka may be lacking as a Ramsey partner, certainly. In the 2013/14 league campaign Arteta was not only averaging 3.6 tackles per match but tellingly 2 interception as well, the latter a fair indication of his ability to sense danger. Xhaka, so far this season, and he is selected every match, has only averaged 1.7 tackles per outing and only 1.1 interceptions. Interestingly our on-field skipper in 13/14 managed to double Xhaka in tackles and interceptions, whilst committing only 1.1 fouls a game, as against Xhaka’s 1.6. Simply summarised, Arteta adapted his game better for the defensive side of his duties.
It may be that in time Granit Xhaka matures and develops the football brain Arteta had in his later years but can Arsenal afford to wait? The alternatives are out there and whether it is Wenger or hopefully a new manager a decision will have to be made this summer. Arsenal either need to invest in a specialist defensive midfielder or adapt the way we play to compensate for not having one. The ideal solution is to find a player that has the deep lying play-maker ability of Xhaka combined with increased pace and game reading ability, or preferably both.
All stats from whoscored.com