Monday, 12 December 2016

The (Not So) Curious Case of Granit Xhaka

In the summer after the 2012-13 season I wrote a piece called The Strange Case of Lukas Podolski, in which I made the point that although Podolski has been bought on the cheap due to Köln’s relegation and produced a pretty good first season for Arsenal valuing him at around €20 million, I’d be furious if I were a supporter of another team and they spunked it on a (then) 28 year-old Podolski.

I get enough wrong to suggest that piece has aged quite well, with the nadir being when Podolski decided that, trailing in an FA Cup semi-final with twenty minutes to go, it was time to see if he really could kick a ball hard enough to defy the law of physics and literally fly through the man stood straight in front of him. In a shocking and wholly unpredictable turn of events, his shot was blocked.

Many have also struggled to understand what has been happening with Granit Xhaka at Arsenal. Like Podolski, he was signed from Germany; unlike Podolski, Arsenal overpaid for Xhaka. It is true that Premier League teams are richer as a result of the new TV deal and that this makes buying players from other Premier League teams more expensive. But it’s unclear to me this should have anywhere near the impact it seems to have had on buying players from abroad. It’s not as if any of the other rich teams in England were in competition for Xhaka - Manchester City were in for Ilkay Gundogan, Chelsea for N’Golo Kante (and already owned Nemanja Matic and the snake) and Manchester United possess a veritable smorgasbord of central midfielders.

The consequence of this overpayment (and huge transfer fee) was that people had disproportionate expectations for Xhaka. They expected another player on the level of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez whereas in reality, Arsenal had signed a very good player but who was nowhere near equivalent to their level.

Nevertheless, this still does not adequately explain Xhaka’s lack of opportunities thus far.

I’d suggest there are two other important points: Xhaka is both not very good defensively, and has a reputation which compounds this. Granted, he has produced some good performances, but too often he is bypassed by teams playing simple 1-2s around him or him not shutting off passing lanes. This is then compounded by his love of chopping people who’ve gone past him. Some degree of tactical fouling is necessary but Xhaka often seems to see it as the only option and while fans love to shout “take yellow”, if you do it has a significant effect on how you can play for the rest of the game.

This is exacerbated by the reputation he has, both from his time in Germany and his sporadic appearances here: I don’t think Stoke should have been awarded a penalty on Saturday but much like Luis Suarez used to have his penalty appeals turned down because he was considered a diver, Xhaka has a (somewhat deserved) reputation as a thug. All of this together attenuates the benefits accrued from his excellent passing between the lines.

The manager likes to talk about balance a great deal. It’s born out by him almost always picking one more attacking and one more defensive full-back, for instance. For me, he has decided that he can cope with a more functional central-midfield pairing (such as Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny) in the belief that his attacking quartet can make ‘something out of nothing. But the cost of picking such an attacking front four (without, for example, Aaron Ramsey on the right as happened last season) is that he needs a more defensive-minded central midfield pairing to avoid matches turning into games of basketball where Arsenal simply try and outscore the opposition. To me, this goes a long way to explaining the lack of appearances for Xhaka and particularly, the reluctance to pick Ramsey and Xhaka together.

To play the two as a pair would be problematic as they’re both players who like to be very proactive and push for tackles. In doing this, they make themselves much easier to be dribbled past and the team would be very open indeed, and this is assuming Ramsey is prepared to focus on defending, an aspect of his game he has at times neglected (this is a kind spin on some of his performances). It could be fixed - by telling the full-backs to sit deeper, for example - but it would require a large change to how we currently play. Alternatively, Arsenal have a set of midfielders who would probably excel in a 4-3-3, but that set-up wouldn’t suit Ozil at all.

All of which has resulted in a situation where Xhaka is clearly a good player, probably best deployed as a deep-lying playmaker. But I think to play him there you need a true DM next to him, not Francis Coquelin in his somewhat bizarre new role. The reality is for all the abundance of midfielders, Arsenal probably don’t own that player. And the consequence is that while Ramsey and Xhaka are the two best central midfielders at the club, playing them together against competent opposition is very difficult.

Certainly, this does beg the question why £35 million was spent on Xhaka. I suspect the view is that Ramsey can do an excellent job as a wide midfield player and that Xhaka will be the DLP (something that was needed with Santi Cazorla’s age and injuries), and this was prioritised over building the midfield around Ramsey. Time will tell whether this was a wise choice.

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