Granit Xhaka sits in his lavish home office at an executive desk. In his left hand is a glass of fine champagne and in his right is a computer mouse. He gazes anxiously at the widescreen monitor of his computer that currently displays the homepage for the popular dating site, E-Harmony. He knows he needs a companion and is desperate for a potential partner.
Granit proceeds to fill out his personal information. Age: 24. Nationality: Swiss. Profession: Football Player. Hobbies: Sports, fashion, and basket weaving. Biggest Turn On: Girls that interlock fingers while holding his hand on the first date. This list goes on and on.
After a while, he finally comes to the last section of his personal profile. This is the question he’d been waiting for. What are you looking for in a partner? Without hesitation he writes:
- Availabilty – someone that is always present at the right times
- Security – someone that can defend me and keep me safe
- Mobility – someone willing to move around for me based on my busy lifestyle
- Supply – someone that will provide me with constant love and support
Granit Xhaka has evolved into Arsenal’s structural base. Much like peak Xabi Alonso in his various teams, Busquets at Barcelona, and what Julian Weigl has become at Dortmund, Xhaka provides a central foundation from which progression through the thirds often begins. Our success next season depends on providing him with the right midfield partner and systemic support.
My knowledge of the transfer market is not comprehensive enough to make well-informed recommendations on potential transfers. It’s my hope that Arsenal makes a quality signing in central midfield. However, this article focuses on the Arsenal midfielders that we already have at our disposal. Regardless of system and/or formation, the ideal characteristics his partner must possess include availability, security, mobility, and supply.
Availability: Xhaka needs a midfield body capable of finding withdrawn or advanced pockets of space depending on the opposition’s tactics. Against opponents that press or try and mark him out of the game, a partner needs to be comfortable dropping deep and picking up the ball from CB’s or engaging in quick passing interplay to break pressure. Against teams that sit deeper, this partner needs to have the ability to make advanced runs and provide that extra attacking option in the box.
Security: Xhaka needs a midfield partner capable of doing a bit of his dirty work. This could entail any of the following: ball recoveries, tackling, tracking runners, and channeling opponents into the areas based on our defensive shape. Our implementation of wingbacks helped alleviate many of these issues for Xhaka during the last 10 games of the season, but he still requires a central partner with these qualities.
Mobility: For all of his good qualities, Xhaka is not the strongest when it comes to covering distances, especially laterally. This is why he needs partners that can do some of his running for him, helping to ensure we keep shape and not get easily overrun in the midfield. We’ll see far fewer clumsy, reckless challenges leading to cards when Xhaka is not responsible for covering wide areas like in this scenario:
Provision: Our midfield general needs the ball played to his feet in order to quarterback the offense. Ball-playing CB’s, wingbacks, and midfielders that can provide quality service is the first step in building play. Xhaka is adept at taking the ball from CB’s deep or receiving higher up the pitch, but someone first must act as supplier.
So who currently on the Arsenal roster provides the best central midfield partner for Xhaka? The table below looks at our current midfield options and which qualities each possesses.
The Best: Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere
It’s my opinion that Cazorla and Wilshere have the skill sets to best compliment Xhaka in the center of the pitch. They each checked three of the four boxes, both showing deficiencies in security. Santi’s is down to his lack of lateral athleticism and ball winning and Jack’s has to due with his sometimes poor positional awareness. A massive barrier to either contributing next season is injury records.
The Good: Aaron Ramsey and Mohamad Elneny
I may have been a bit harsh on Ramsey here. I felt he lacked in the availability area due to his struggles finding withdraw, close-range spaces. It’s hard to argue that Ramsey and Xhaka don’t dovetail nicely because Ramsey is so good at covering area and aiding in attack. Additionally, he is an underrated ball winner. Elneny did well at times next to Xhaka in a midfield two, but despite covering large distances, opponents dribble by him too easily and he struggles in the final third.
The Rest: Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Contrary to what many believe, Coquelin is Arsenal-quality, however he and Xhaka don’t have playing styles that compliment one another. Coquelin is strictly a security and short-distance passing option when playing alongside Xhaka. Oxlade-Chamberlain could eventually prove the best option of the six in time, but has not been able to truly refine any of the above areas due to lack of playing time.
So while sexy names like Mbappe and Lacazette flood your Twitter feeds, remember that for the better part of the last two seasons we’ve struggled to field a cohesive holding midfield. Filling that void is critical going into next season. It is in this area where many games are won and lost and consistency through structure can be achieved.
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