Humanity often has the habit of looking towards the future and forgetting the past. Not from a sanguine or optimistic standpoint but in a disregard for that which has served them well. We are quick to throw out that which is not broken and upgrade or update for the sake of appearances.
Granit Xhaka, for all his faults, serves a purpose at Arsenal. He may not evoke the memories of Cesc Fabregas or Patrick Vieira but his skill set still holds value amongst the Arsenal squad. In fact he is one of a dying breed – a footballer who can put a ball on a sixpence from a mile away; or play a quick pass over his shoulder for the onrushing wide man; or when his engine is really purring, he enjoys a through ball with a touch of back spin – not unlike a Phil Mickelson flop shot. Despite this beautiful range of passing, Arsenal fans would have discarded him long ago. But Emery knows better.
Even with the acquisition of Ceballos, the emergence of Willock and the continued improvement of Guendouzi, Xhaka was the man tasked with controlling Arsenal’s centre midfield against Newcastle on the opening day of the season. Prior to that, he started every pre-season friendly.
One may argue that his inclusion may be happenstance. The result of fitness, availability and perhaps a touch of loyalty from Emery who had lost the option of three of his five captains last season and the availability of his fourth following a security scare. But that would ignore the importance of Xhaka and what he brings to the team.
Frustration often resides around the Swiss midfielder’s lapses in concentration – but do not let his penchant for lunacy shroud the functionality of his play. Xhaka was in the top 10 passers in the Premier League last season; with the exception of Jorginho who was employed as the fulcrum of Sarri’s Chelsea team, the rest were defenders. Similarly, he was the highest passing midfielder in the opening weekend of the Premier League.
Furthermore, Xhaka was the most accurate long ball passer of any midfielder last year with the second-highest attempted long ball passes. It is rare that the accusation of long balls can be levelled at Arsenal but in Xhaka, the Gunners have a midfielder who has the ability to break a press with his passing range. Where Xhaka struggles is when his option of a long pass isn’t available or his midfield partner isn’t in close vicinity to give him that shorter option.
Ceballos’ Burnley debut was quite exceptional and served to highlight many of the skills that Xhaka simply does not possess. His ability to receive the ball from deep under pressure and wriggle away with his quick feet is a skill that has been sorely missed in the post Santi years. He transitioned quickly from defence to attack and was the most fouled player on the pitch which in turn allowed him to demonstrate his expertise in dead ball situations. As far as performances go, it wasn’t so much Freddie Mercury at Wembley as it was Johnny Cash at San Quentin as he led us sinners through a raucous showing of his talent; his steely demeanour only cracking as the second and pivotal goal struck the back of the net.
Alongside him, Willock continued his confident start to the season with another assured and energetic performance while Guendouzi again showed his class as he matched Ceballos’ 90% pass accuracy in the middle of the park. Xhaka, who will likely captain the team this year, watched on from the bench with slightly clenched butt cheeks as three of his positional rivals knocked loudly on Emery’s door.
At times, the Swiss midfielder doesn’t so much divide opinion as he does unite a nation of fans who are eager to see a midfield triumvirate of Ceballos, Guendouzi and Torreira/Willock. There is no doubt that the young quartet have untapped potential – and possibly each a higher ceiling than Xhaka. But they are still cutting their teeth at the highest level and have yet to show that they can consistently compete, not just with the likes of Pogba or Jorginho but with hardened Premier League midfielders like Noble, Milivojevic and Doucoure.
Supplement or Replace?
On Saturday, Arsenal face one of their sternest tests of the season away at Anfield. Last year, the Gunners lost 5-1 to Liverpool despite having more possession, more passes and a better pass accuracy percentage. Xhaka started that game alongside Torreira and was simply unable to combat the energy of Liverpool’s midfield and forward line.
While Xhaka has done little to suggest that he can deal with the mobility and energy of the Premier League’s fastest and fittest, he still retains the trust of Emery. Willock, Ceballos and Guendouzi may have provided Emery with ample evidence to suggest that they can offer a solution to one of his most pressing concerns from last season; however I would be surprised if Xhaka does not return to the team following the slight niggle that prevented him from playing against Burnley.
Xhaka’s flaws are undeniable but for three years he has been tasked with dictating the tempo of Arsenal’s play and hassling and harrying opposing midfielders. The majority of Arsenal supporters hope that Ceballos’ arrival will prompt Emery to replace the Swiss midfielder. But might the logical solution be to supplement it rather than attempt to replace it?
Til next time,
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