The season is over and Arsenal are already on the verge of announcing a deal for Granit Xhaka: very un-Arsenal, right?
Well, with the player not agitating for a move too much and Borussia Mönchengladbach eager to have their squad settled before pre-season begins for them a month from now, the Gunners didn’t have much choice.
Xhaka has a release clause of €30m a year from now so the German side were always guaranteed a healthy sum of money for him and were in no rush to sell. It was a case of now or never and, under that sort of pressure, it looks like we’ve got a deal over the line.
A transfer supposedly worth over £30m looks expensive but, in the long run, should be worth every penny.
As for the player himself: why is he worth that much to us? What would his arrival mean for the rest of the team? Is he what we need?
To answer all three in no particular order, Xhaka should slot into the Arsenal midfield well.
Joining Gladbach at the age of 19, Xhaka had a rocky first season in Germany after a fairly big-money move from Basel. It’s a mark of the man that, despite huge doubts in Germany, he came back to force himself into Lucien Favre’s side on a regular basis by the end of his first campaign.
It’s that sort of brash attitude which has made Xhaka a solid midfielder but also a loose cannon and, for most of this season, Gladbach captain at the age of 23.
As for playing style, the Swiss is, most importantly, good on the ball. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a pre-requisite for any Arsenal midfielder and something all of our players should be, especially with the style of play favoured by Arsène Wenger.
A good passer, he starts the majority of Gladbach’s moves, happily collecting the ball from the defence even when opposition players are nearby. When pressed he’s pretty much unfazed.
@piersmorgan Of the 162 players to attempt 50+ dribbles in the last 2 Bundesliga seasons, Granit Xhaka has the best success (83.3%)
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 21, 2016
Xhaka is sturdy and can ride challenges well but also moves the ball quickly, despite being fairly one-footed.
When he is in the space to pass, he favours a long ball out to the wings but that may be because it suits Gladbach’s current style: they look to play fast and exploit the width of the pitch. At Arsenal, you’d expect Xhaka to launch counter-attacks when possible but he’ll play in a much more reserved manner with the ball as long as his fellow midfielders give him the options to find a short pass or a direct ball through the lines, supplying Mesut Özil.
With Arsenal’s play not suiting itself to countless long pass attempts, Xhaka should soon relax and look to play the ball around with the same authority but a little more thought.
Off the ball, he’s solid defensively. Robust and always willing to show it, he’ll put his foot in where necessary but prefers to anticipate passes and steal the ball. Not box-to-box in the slightest, but very much an all-action midfielder.
That could be an issue, especially with card-happy referees, as Xhaka puts himself about and has developed something of a reputation for crunching challenges. However, that side of his game may be on the mend.
After picking up four yellow cards and three red cards in his first 15 Bundesliga games this season, the midfielder was booked just once in his next 13 appearances. His discipline could become an issue but he appears to have worked on it.
Though Xhaka is positionally disciplined, he can sometimes lack intelligence out of possession. There won’t be concern at the Emirates Stadium that he will charge forward carelessly but he may stand too far to one side of the pitch and fail to read the game well enough at times.
Unlike Francis Coquelin, he doesn’t have the burst of acceleration to make up for these mistakes. It could leave the Gunners exposed, particularly on the break, as Gladbach currently play with three central defenders and leave Xhaka with more support than the Gunners are likely to.
Generally speaking, all of Arsenal’s current options could suit Xhaka as a partner to a varying degree.
Pairing him with Francis Coquelin would probably leave the midfield with too little offensive presence but could be the case in game when Arsenal hope to play on the break. The same applies to Mohamed Elneny, who would help Xhaka keep the ball and look to win it back with some impressive intensity.
The spot, though, is likely to be fought for by Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey. Cazorla’s pretty work on the ball could help Arsenal dominate possession against sides and Xhaka, eager to take the ball from the defence at every opportunity, would allow him more freedom to get forward. The worry then would be his ability to get back alongside the Swiss or high enough up the pitch to influence things. Xhaka won’t score or create goals, at least not directly, and Cazorla had zero goals and just one open play assist from 21 Arsenal starts last season.
Ideally, Arsenal could allow Xhaka to form a partnership with Aaron Ramsey to rival the superb Arteta-Ramsey combination of 2013. Like Arteta, Xhaka will take the ball in deep areas constantly and sweep it around calmly while remaining positionally disciplined. Ramsey has the engine to support in defence but also get into the box to make a difference in the final third.
Granit Xhaka isn’t perfect, despite what I’ve said. Arsenal still need to improve strategically – offering more options on the ball and combining better in defence as well as attack – but it isn’t Arsène Wenger’s way to drill the team in things like their spacing and positioning as Pep Guardiola, for instance, does.
The Arsenal manager looks for partnerships on the pitch which naturally complement each other without explicit instruction and Xhaka, being a more modern version of a holding midfielder than anything else we have, should make that much easier for us.
Coquelin and Cazorla have combined excellently at times but Arsenal’s midfield hasn’t balanced the two deep midfield roles and the team has suffered for it. As good as they are, they have been two midfielders doing the job of one modern ‘holding’ player, and that’s just what Xhaka is.
That isn’t to say he’s as good as Cazorla at passing and dribbling, nor as good as Coquelin at tackling, but he does have a combination of the two and the discipline to sit in front of the defence that no Arsenal midfielder has possessed in the last two seasons.
Arsenal have needed a midfielder capable of combining the passing traits of Santi Cazorla and defensive instincts of Francis Coquelin. It’s a year late, but we look to have signed one.