Blessed with a mercurial left foot, awe-inspiring tenacity and leadership qualities Arsenal have been crying out for, Granit Xhaka would have expected to be dominating premier league midfield’s from the off this season, yet this hasn’t been the case. The 24 year old’s only starts for the Gunners thus far only come as a result of a late injury to Francis Coquelin, and Özil’s late return from European exertions. So why isn’t the Swiss international starting? Is it due to a cautious easing approach for Arsene Wenger, or is there an issue that lies beneath the surface?
As previously mentioned, Xhaka’s only starts for the Gunners this season came as a result of a late injury to French destroyer Coquelin and a lack of fitness from Mesut Özil, v Leicester and Watford. Despite this, Arsenal arguably played their best football of the season with the Swiss in the side, especially against Watford. Dictating play from deep, Xhaka completely controlled the game, combining excellently with Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla, with his trademark long pass also coming to frution, finding both Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez on numerous occasions, leaving the Arsenal fans purring at the quality of the acquisition the Gunners board had found themselves.
Yet, inspite of the progressive football Arsenal played with Xhaka in the side, his runout v Watford was his only one of two starts this season. So why is this? Arsene Wenger offers an explaination to this issue, stating that “Coquelin and Cazorla have worked well together” and that “football is about partnerships”, however, the Frenchman does go onto say “Xhaka will play games and every week he is stronger and better. I think he will have a huge impact as a player.”
What does Wenger exactly mean by “partnership”? To many it is the combination of Coquelin’s aggression and Cazorla’s skill that make them awell suited pair. However, this season they have been deployed in a way contrary to this belief. Coquelin, in every game this season, has had an average position higher up the pitch than Santi Cazorla, you may argue this is to be expected. What is perculiar though is how Coquelin acts as a box to box midfielder. Coquelin’s skill set is clearly limited to being a destroyer, of which he is very good at, but his skill set beyond these realms is not to the quality of say Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal’s best box to box midfielder, or even Mohamed ElNeny. There is thought behind the madness however. By pushing Coquelin further up, the Frenchman disrupts the opposing midfielder two, meaning a third midfielder has to drop back to create a defensive advantage, especially with Özil occupying the central area. Therefore, with the third central midfielder dropping deeper, Cazorla is free to dictate from deep without pressure, and with freedom 15 yards in any direction due to the position Coquelin has taken up.
This tactical approach has led to mixed results so far this season, with a scrappy win against Southampton and a lucky draw v PSG the consequence, yet the A 4-1 thrashing of Hull also being another outcome. You’re probably thinking how does this relate to Xhaka? Well, let me explain. Ramsey is by far Arsenal’s best box to box midfielder, and after his stellar performances at the European Championships, it seems a no brainer to play the Welshman in his best position. However, Ramsey’s defensive discipline has always been seen as an issue. With a player of Ramsey’s talent, you can’t bench him, you have to find a way around the problem. This is where the Cazorla-Coquelin test comes in to play. Whilst Ramsey has been out injured Arsene has had a big decision to make, does he persist with “Coqzorla” or not. As it turned out he did, but whilst persisting he has also put Arsenal’s tactical presence through its Beta stages. Coquelin has resembled the role Ramsey would take up, with playing high to free space for the deep-lying player maker, Cazorla in this instance. Xhaka is ready made to displace Cazorla in this role and bring more to the table.
There is one thing Arsenal fans cried out for last season, A player who combined Coquelin and Cazorla’s best attributes. As if by chance, a player ready made, with a bit more on top found their way to Arsenal courtesy of an eagle eyed Arsenal Board. Granit Xhaka. The only question mark regarding the Swiss is his fitness, which may explain the slow introduction he has experienced. However, if he continues to make statements such as his thunderbolt against Hull, combined with his magical left foot, it’ll only be a matter of time before he starts regularly in a Gunners shirt.