Replacing Granit Xhaka? Good luck With That. by AI
Football is both an art and a science. Not everything is clear about what goes on on a pitch. What most fans are in touch with is the artistic part of it, the emotions and raw beauty of it. The science part is what coaches cook behind the scenes and try to present as art on the pitch. But don’t be fooled: football is more science than it is art. It has rules, principles, trusims, geometry, physics and psychology involved. And sometimes, there is a gray area where something that is utterly scientific about football does not come across as art.
Take Georgino Wjnaldum for example. Many Liverpool fans are not especially in love with him. They look at him play and see an uninspirational player who just stands, defends and passes the ball 5 meters. Yet, this seemingly indistinct midfielder scored the goal that put them in the Champions League under Jurgen Klopp for the first time. This same midfielder has played the most minutes for Jurgen Klopp among all the Liverpool outfielders. And this midfielder has played extremely critical roles in the biggest performances of the Klopp era. And when Wjnaldum doesn’t play (which almost never happens as he is always available and starting), the overall magic feels a little less artistic.
Wjnaldum is simply a high-end attacking midfielder who has adapted his qualities to play an utterly selfless role in the machine that is Klopp’s Liverpool. He is the gengenpressing, the reason Liverpool can win, keep and pass the ball even against teams like Manchester City. He is why they don’t concede so much even though they throw everyone forward. His role is not beautiful to watch to the uninitiated eye but it remains important nonetheless.
Granit Xhaka is a player that is extremely frustrating for Arsenal fans. He has a mistake or two in him that leads to a goal every season. He doesn’t score much on his own except for one or two free kicks in big games or the very occasional banger. He is not mobile enough for a generation of fans that have seen Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosiscky, Santi Cazorla and even Andre Arshavin do the business on the pitch. He is not skillful, either—Matteo Guendouzi is a better dribbler. So what exactly does he bring to the damn table?
Picture Andrea Pirlo in his 30s. By then, Pirlo was a weak, immobile midfielder who didn’t venture forward much and couldn’t do much defensively, either. But he was still able to significantly contribute to the near-iconic 2015 squad of Juventus. How? By playing the same game as Granit Xhaka.
Despite complaints to the contrary, Granit Xhaka is widely recognized as one of the most progressive passers in Europe. Fans don’t see this because they only count through balls as progressive. Everything else is ‘sideways’. However, it is precisely those ‘sideways’ passes that push your team up the pitch and open up the game for you. Have you ever seen Jorginho make an incisive through ball? Why is he still so highly regarded as a playmaker, then?
Fans don’t realize that most teams attack with width on both sides. However, when you move the ball from the back on one side and still try to play through that same side, your width-play becomes extremely predictable and ineffective. What makes width work is working the ball quickly from one side to another. The faster you can move the ball from left to right, the better. And one of the best midfielders for that important job is Granit Xhaka.
Also, it sounds like a basic thing but one of the most important and attractive things a midfielder can do is to never lose the ball. When a midfielder, especially a deeply positioned one, loses the ball, his team is usually put at a great disadvantage. It is not just a negative impact quality. It also has a positive impact, too. Imagine you are playing the biggest game of your life against Manchester City and you have a midfielder who simply never loses the ball—that is a great advantage. That is what makes some seemingly average midfielders exceptional. Players like Veratti, Wjnaldum, etc almost never lose the ball. It doesn’t matter what they are up against. Granit Xhaka is also among the rest of the best in this category, along with the likes of Jorginho. They can lose the ball once in a while but it’s not common for them.
If you have a midfielder who doesn’t lose the ball and who also is one of the best progressive passers in the game, then you almost have a cheat code. You have someone who you can always give the ball to all the time and always expect something positive (or at worst, neutral). That is also Granit Xhaka. For 95% of most games, Xhaka almost never loses the ball and that is a great advantage for a playmaker to have.
When this kind of a player is not in your team, then you will notice the difference and the need. Every Arsenal fan can agree that even with the likes of Partey, Ozil and Ramsey playing, Granit Xhaka is always an obvious miss when he is not there.
The best use for the kind of player we have in Xhaka is to partner him with someone who covers for his deficiencies. An athletic, mobile and skillful midfielder. Enter Thomas Partey. The Partey-Xhaka pivot was one of the reasons Arsenal recovered their form in the second half of the season to reach 6 points off Champions League places. It was one of the most dominant pivots in the league, excellent game after game.
And it is at this point in the story that Granit Xhaka, heavily abused and unappreciated, wants to leave. And to who else but José Mourinho, a coach who knows a good midfielder when he sees one?
Replacing Xhaka is a difficult job as it is. Upgrading on Xhaka is close to mission impossible. To upgrade on Xhaka, you are asking for a mobile midfielder who is also one of the best progressive and volume passers in the game as well as being skillful and athletic. That’s the definition of a world class midfielder. That’s prime Sergio Busquets. That’s Frenkie De Jong. That’s mission impossible. Even the top midfielders don’t have it all. The likes of Gundogan, Thiago and Verrati are great passers, mobile and skillful but they are not athletic. Wjnaldum is skilfull, mobile and athletic but he is not a volume and progressive passer.
Our best hope is to get a top midfielder like the one described above (Manuel Locatelli), but without Champions League football, that is a difficult task. That is why we are keeping tabs on the likes of Bissouma and Neves, both of whom do not yet belong to the ‘top’ category but may reach there with us.
Granit Xhaka is a midfielder with one of the most important roles in football and who mostly does his job admirably well. Finding another player to do that same job with the same level of consistency and effectiveness or even more is a very difficult task especially without Champions League football.
Good luck to us trying to do that.