As the dust settles following an ultimately disappointing campaign, compounded by a mediocre Manchester United equaling our FA Cup record, once again, it is look-to-the-future time.
And it seems, for once, the manager has stolen a march on the fans with this one, with a transfer seemingly in the bag already. Despite us all knowing, right up to the leaked photos, the club is reluctant to announce the signing of Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. Whether this is to do with the kit launch, the official opening of the transfer window or some international tournament related injury clause, we can only speculate, but unlike the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal.com only confirms a signing when every minuscule detail is beyond question.
Lewis has already penned a fine analysis of our prospective new man, and I agree that his capacity as both destroyer and distributor re-ignites the plausibility of Ramsey as a viable option in central midfield.
On the Daily Cannon Podcast we’ve previously discussed the squad space freed up by the long anticipated departures of Rosicky, Arteta and Flamini, and the need to replace the role of our outgoing skipper in particular. The Coq-zorla axis has been fantastic since its discovery, but the imbalance in our squad, accentuated by the absence of Wilshere, meant that our midfield completely stopped functioning as soon as the diminutive Spaniard suffered his knee injury.
For all the annual injury crises that we are all too familiar with, there can be no doubt that the absence of Cazorla did more to damage our League campaign than any single absence in recent-ish memory. With him in the squad and firing fit, it is very likely that Wenger would have clinched the title that would have been his redemption with even the most vociferous opponents.
That said, unless a full epidemic, injuries aren’t a great excuse for a club of our size, and the absence of one player being so de-stabilising is clearly a situation that needed addressing. As such, although a very different player, Xhaka would be a signing that would, at least in part, address the issue.
With Cazorla injured and Arteta no longer able to compete for more than cameo substitute appearances, the only option we had this season for quickly and accurately spreading the play or playing through balls from deeper positions was when Ozil dropped into a deeper role. This was something of a double edged band-aid, as that would leave us short of numbers further forward and leave Giroud isolated. And for all his oft-under-appreciated merits, Giroud is largely negated when not supported in relative close proximity.
So for five months we had either stodge in midfield or ineffective isolation up front. Hence the terrible lack of goalscoring by Arsenal standards. The paucity of distribution from deep areas also served to effectively cut the much-maligned Theo Walcott off at the knees.
We all know that Theo lacks the technique to be consistently effective in tight areas. Any brief glance at his highlights also tells us that he needs the ball to be played early into space from deeper positions. Unless it is millimetre perfect, a five-to-10 yard pass wastes his attributes – speed and movement. It’s no coincidence that his best runs of form have been in the company of those who wish to play through balls at pace from withdrawn positions. Accordingly, his best goal returns have come in teams with multiple playmaking talents being fixtures in the side. 2010-11 saw him benefiting from the passing of Fabregas and Van Persie, and 2012-13 had Cazorla and Arteta as almost ever-presents. Since the latter season, he’s had no more than a handful of appearances with both Cazorla and Arteta or the deeper lying Cazorla and Ozil combinations in the side.
Two minutes on YouTube tells you that Walcott for one will be very pleased with this signing.
Crucially, Xhaka isn’t just an airy playmaker with an eye for a pass. In the land of the midgets that has for too long been Arsenal’s midfield, he is a comparative giant. At six-foot-one-inch, and of solid build, he can provide a taste of the genuine physical presence in central areas that we haven’t seen since Diaby’s body finally gave up the ghost. While not nearly as athletic or dynamic on the ball as the unfortunate Frenchman, his style is rather more aggressive. While not always excellent technically, his tackles are full of determination, and he loves a physical battle.
After so long, the thought of a midfielder in the squad that certain opponents will bounce off is an alluring one, and Xhaka is excellent at using body position to retain possession under pressure.
It’s not just size though. Despite toning it down to stop crossing the line, Xhaka has a serious streak of the nasty that again hasn’t been seen at the club in too long. He is also a genuine leader, which fills another significant hole in the squad. Still only 23, he is acting captain of Borussia Moenchengladbach, and a dominant character in the Swiss national team, with 40 caps and six goals to his name.
Likened to a “young Schweinsteiger” by a man in a position to comment, Ottmar Hitzfeld, who also touted him as an ideal signing for the club where he managed the now aging Man United midfield general.
“Bayern need players with a strong self-confidence. Xhaka certainly has the quality to prevail at Bayern. I am convinced that he still has a great career ahead of him. He is a leader, a player who is responsible and self-confident.”
And it is perhaps that leadership and self-confidence that could be as important to Arsenal as his tactical profile. We have a squad full of honest hard-working pros, but a few too many lack the natural self-belief to consistently take personal responsibility for the team’s fortunes with genuine conviction. Along with a shortage of physical power, this is probably the biggest difference between this current squad and the Invincibles, whose extraordinary characters were brilliantly profiled in Amy Lawrence’s book. Both deficiencies would be partially addressed with this signing.
If not, here’s another thought, especially for readers in their late 20s and older. Watch the video below, and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen another player more reminiscent of Emmanuel Petit. At times all that’s missing is the flowing blond locks…