On Wednesday night, as team news for the game against Paris Saint-Germain was announced, a wave of confusion washed over the concourses of The Emirates.
Heads were tilted at forty-five degree angles, conversations were paused and the only discernible sound was a chorus of, “Eh?”
Granit Xhaka was once again missing from our starting lineup.
When he arrived, Xhaka was heralded as the saviour of a central midfield that seemed to be our biggest weakness, but since signing for us at the end of May, our £35m man has only started for us on eight occasions in all competitions.
Arsenal aren’t a club that pays that sort of money for a player that sits on the bench, so what’s happening here?
First off, let’s address the ‘Wenger never wanted him in the first place’ conspiracy theories you’ve probably seen on Twitter (or heard from Ian Wright and his mates): They’re ridiculous. End of discussion.
So let’s take an actual look at this.
The most obvious – and perhaps reasonable – explanation is that it’s a case of giving him a slow introduction to life at Arsenal. But is that necessary?
These days, it’s something of a myth that players need a ‘settling in’ period. Özil didn’t, Alexis didn’t, Mustafi didn’t, and judging by the way Wenger threw Xhaka headfirst into the clusterf**k that was our opening game against Liverpool, the manager seems to think that Xhaka didn’t either.
So, it’s probably not that.
Of course, when Xhaka was brought into that game, he was booked almost instantly, and since then, he’s picked up another two yellow cards and a red. Could his disciplinary record be the thing keeping him on the bench?
Wenger has admitted to being ‘concerned’ about it in the past, but it’s not like the evidence wasn’t there before signing him; he was sent off three times for Borussia in the 15/16 season alone. And while his red against Swansea was arguably the result of an ill-informed decision on Xhaka’s part, replays suggest that not only was it an extremely harsh dismissal, but we’d have been exposed to a four-on-two counter had he not made the tackle. Wenger punishing him for making the sort of foul we’ve been begging Coquelin to make for what feels like forever now would be nothing if not counter-productive.
Speaking of Coquelin, he’s the player most benefiting from all of this. But can Arsene Wenger truly believe that he’s the better man for the job right now?
In the appearances he has been handed, Xhaka has displayed an infinitely better passing range than the Frenchman, a couple of truly dominant midfield showings and we’ve looked a far more fluid and effective team with him in the side. This isn’t to discredit Coquelin – quite a few would say he doesn’t need my help with that – or even Elneny, who joined Coquelin in midfield away to United, but neither of them should be in the side at Xhaka’s expense, especially with Cazorla injured and our transitional play already suffering as a result.
Essentially, then, this has to be bad decision-making from Wenger, right? Well, maybe not.
As our very own tactical analyst, Amrit Rai, suggests, these fears might be setting in a bit too early. With the bigger games against United and PSG now out of the way, perhaps we’ll soon see the manager experimenting with the Xhaka-Ramsey midfield we all salivated over while watching the pair dominate for their respective nations at Euro 2016 this summer.
If that is the case, then fair play.
Personally, I still think that going with Coquelin and Elneny at Old Trafford was far more conservative than we needed to be against a Manchester United side that really aren’t up to much – even with Jose’s hex on us – and that yet again trying the already-proven-terrible idea of Ramsey-Coquelin on Wednesday was never going to work. But if these were merely overly-careful missteps before implementing the midfield we’re all dying to see, all will be forgiven when it leads us to the title in May.
Intriguingly, Wenger himself has addressed this issue in the aftermath of the PSG game. The boss claims that he’s happy with Xhaka’s progress and adds that, “It is about pairs, as well, who work together.” As well as promising that, “He will play games. Every week he will be stronger and better.”
Here’s hoping that the impending link between our Swiss enforcer and our Welsh maestro hits the ground running, then. And until then, I guess we’ll have to be patient.
Good job we Arsenal fans are so renowned for being a patient bunch, eh?