It’s only once you’ve seen excellence that its absence becomes a dagger through the heart. Granit Xhaka, the man whose excellence has mesmerised in 2017, yet whose naivety has hindered progress. The 25-year-old is blessed with a mercurial left foot, is revered by his fellow teammates, yet finds himself walking the plank of football punditry, a few games away from being pushed overboard. Is this the manifestation of his footballing deficiencies, or is a deeper problem beginning to unravel?
It’s no secret that the Swiss international is public enemy number 1 amongst a wide range of pundits, ridiculed for his excessive force and perceived nonsensical positional play. Certainly, his abysmal defending for Watford’s winner at Vicarage Road was a source of intense scrutiny. However, what the Gunner’s 29 is being criticised for is not what is in his football repertoire. A fish cannot expected to climb a tree, nor can the Swiss be expected to perform functions not in his game. Should his positioning have been better? Of course. That said, the midfielder Arsenal bought from Borussia Mochengladbach in 2016 was not a defensively astute one, and when he suffers from lapses in defensive concentration, Arsene Wenger knew what he signed up for.
A much bigger issue is at play than these momentary lapses in concentration. The role of Granit Xhaka is a systemic issue in the Gunner’s set up. Put simply, you cannot play the 25-year-old in a midfield two and expect him to be a world beater. The 35 million pound man is a deep-lying playmaker, dictating play from between the two centre halves, providing a cohesive link between defence and the further forward midfielders. Instead, he finds himself in a midfield with a goal craving partner (the runs Ramsey does make are excellent nonetheless), and the space behind him occupied by a centre-back in a defensive three. What results is a Gunner’s 29 deprived of any sense of direction, caught between a rock and a hard place. Does he drop deep and further congest the defence, or does he push up the pitch, an area where his skill set is significantly decreased in effectiveness. No doubt Xhaka’s MOTM performance in the Community shield will be referenced. However, with ElNeny providing protection, and the Chelsea midfield entirely lacklustre on the day, the performance merely provides an exception that proves the rule. This is not to say that the 25-year-old can be excused for his performances, some of them have at times been shambolic, however, neglecting the bigger picture is to do an injustice to the talent of the stellar midfielder.
The systemic problem is clear. So, what’s the solution? Firstly, ditch 3 at the back. Time has come to acknowledge the shortcomings of the formation, it came with a change in appearance, but the substance remained, Arsenal are frail defensively. Combating this frailty can be done in one of two ways. Either Arsenal control games more effectively, or become more resolute defensively. The latter has little chance of materialising, so control it is. Control is contingent on Xhaka, building a team that adequately accommodates to his needs. This is not an esoteric dream, which requires millions in investment, simply switching to 4-3-3. Positioning the Swiss international at the base of a midfield three gives him the licence to dictate from deep that he so desperately craves, whilst simultaneously providing robust energy either side of him, compensating for his lack of pace. With Aaron Ramsey, a ready-made right central midfielder can be slotted into the line up, with astronomical levels of stamina combined with an increasing technical capacity.
A formation change not only benefits the Gunners 29. By switching to a midfield 3, Ramsey is given the licence to make his trademark runs into the box without fear of leaving his midfield companion abandoned. The icing on the cake? Jack Wilshere returns to the Arsenal XI as a left centre mid. Whilst his fitness limitations are apparent, placing the Englishman in a midfield three allows him to be the stop-gap between Xhaka and the forward line, whilst also allowing the balance of defensive discipline and explosive dribbling which the Arsenal graduate is renowned for.
Misuse of Xhaka’s talent is criminal. Of course, the complexities of football transcend a mere formation change, as the 3 at the back experiment highlights. However, if the Gunners wish to utilise the 25-year-old’s repertoire, change is a necessity, and far more than Arsenal 29 that would reap the rewards.