Why Arsenal should keep Granit Xhaka this summer by Alfie Culshaw
There has been plenty of criticism of Granit Xhaka over the last two seasons. Lots of people have been frustrated and irritated at his performances, calling for him to be dropped or even be sold. He has often been made a scapegoat for our poor performances. For me, this is essentially unjust. Xhaka has been exploited in our system; his weaknesses being emphasised by the sheer responsibility put on him to screen and protect our back four- a role not suited to him.
Granit Xhaka is supposed to be a “deep-lying playmaker”. Someone to take the ball off the Central Defenders and use his impressive passing range to launch attacks. Someone to always look forward, to spot players in between the lines, allowing them to turn and create opportunities. Someone who is relatively defensively capable, but when against more threatening, quick teams, to be accompanied by a more mobile, defensively minded midfielder. Someone in the mould of an Andrea Pirlo, a Xabi Alonso, a Toni Kroos or even Steven Gerrard later in his career. Xhaka may not be this calibre of player, and probably never will be, but he has the potential to be much closer to them, if used in the right way.
At Arsenal in the past few years, Xhaka has, in the majority of his games, been deployed as our most defensive midfielder. His responsibility has been to snuff out opposition attacks, holding his position in front of the back four and to follow midfield runners into the box. Whilst doing all this, the Swiss international has also been expected to maintain his deep-lying playmaker assets, dictating our play from deeper positions. Although on the whole he has managed to showcase these playmaker attributes, he has ultimately failed at the former role, in being our defensive midfielder. Understandably, this failure to succeed in this role has resulted in criticism.
He single-handedly lost us two games this season. The first, at Watford, with the game poised at 1-1 in the 90th minute, Xhaka stopped at the edge of the box, only for Tom Cleverly to continue running into it and score as the ball came back to him on the edge of the six-yard box. An identical situation then occurred away at Bournemouth with the game at 1-1. People were quick to criticise for this, and understandably so. However, the fact is he is not a defensive midfielder. He does not obtain the discipline, mobility, sense of positioning or ability to sense attacks before they happen. His tackling is often very good, but also sometimes reckless and badly timed. It is clear that Xhaka cannot occupy this role within our team. We need to deploy him in a role that suits him to see him fully flourish.
This all therefore emphasises our need to bring in a defensive midfielder. However, this should not mark the end for Granit Xhaka at Arsenal. He should be used in home games against lesser teams, where Arsenal dominate the game and possession, where his progressive passing can be utilised. These games were clearly not a problem for us last season and were often the games in which he did flourish as his position as a defensive midfielder was not tested. For bigger games he should either be left out for the holding midfielder or accompany them, meaning the defensive responsibility is not solely put on him, and he can focus more on his role as a deep-lying playmaker.
The stats are there to suggest he has the ability; he completed more passes than any other premier league player last season. He got more assists than Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez and Son-Heung Min. His average pass length of 18.44m is longer than Fernandinho, Matic and Kevin De Bruyne. He has the talent. He hasn’t been used properly. If we can use him properly, we will properly appreciate him as an asset.