Arsenal

Breaking Down What Granit Xhaka Will Bring to Arsenal

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 29: Granit Xhaka of Switzerland directs his teammates during the international friendly match between Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Stadium Letzigrund on March 29, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images
James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2016

In the past, Arsenal have been criticised for dragging their heels in the transfer window. The Gunners are clearly determined to avoid that this year, as Arsene Wenger is already on the verge of completing a major deal.

According to John Cross of the Mirror, Arsenal are on the precipice of announcing the third biggest signing in their history—Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka.

Cross wrote: "Arsenal expect to announce the £30m signing of Granit Xhaka in the next 48 hours. 

"The deal has been agreed, medical passed and even publicity photos done but they rushed it through at the weekend to allow the midfielder to join up with Switzerland’s Euro 2016 squad."

It’s now merely a matter of time until the paperwork is complete and Arsenal officially unveil their new signing.

Clearly, Wenger has made recruiting Xhaka priority, but what is it about Borussia Monchengladbach’s skipper that makes him so integral to Arsenal’s plans?

Firstly there is a clear need for a new midfielder in north London. On the final day of the Premier League season, Arsenal bade farewell to the experienced trio of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky. Wenger has to find a way to replace them in his squad.

Moenchengladbach's Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka reacts during the German first division Bundesliga football match Borussia Moenchengladbach vs 1. FC Cologne in Moenchengladbach , western Germany, on February  20, 2016. / AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ / RESTRICTI
PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

It’s arguable that Flamini’s replacement was secured back in January, when Wenger brought in Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny. Both men are versatile, energetic and selfless. Since Elneny broke into the first team in March, Flamini has barely figured. 

Rosicky’s place in the squad may well be inherited by academy product Alex Iwobi. Like Rosicky, the 20-year-old is able to play on either flank or as a No. 10. While he still has a long way to go before he can compare favourably with the "Little Mozart," the talent and temperament appear to be there.

Xhaka can therefore be interpreted as a direct replacement for Arteta. The Spaniard was barely able to contribute to Arsenal’s season as injuries got the better of him and he failed to start a single Premier League game.

The truth is that he was missed, especially when Santi Cazorla was absent through injury. Arsenal lacked someone with the composure to take the ball off the back four and instigate moves from the back.

Xhaka is comfortable in that role. Like Arteta and Cazorla, he began his career in a more advanced position before settling into a deeper deployment.

It was a path followed by Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Xhaka’s former international coach Ottmar Hitzfeld had no hesitation in comparing the two playmakers in 2011, per FourFourTwo: "I see similarities between Granit and Bastian Schweinsteiger, whom I promoted to the first team at Bayern Munich when he was 18. He is extremely mature, highly intelligent, reads the game well and has good technical skills."

His range of passing is excellent. Xhaka is as comfortable spraying a 50-yard cross-field pass as he is threading an intricate through ball into the penalty area. His technical ability is equal to his vision: he has the gift to see a pass and then execute it. Xhaka’s distribution is characterised by its variety and its quality.

He can beat a man, too. According to Squawka, Xhaka was successful in an outstanding 79 percent of his take-ons in last season’s Bundesliga*. That’s an invaluable skill in a congested midfield. When put under pressure, he has the quick feet and quick mind to swivel away from a marker.

Cologne's French forward Anthony Modeste and Moenchengladbach's Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka vie for the ball during the German first division Bundesliga football match Borussia Moenchengladbach vs 1. FC Cologne in Moenchengladbach , western Germany, on
PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

He has power, too. That’s probably the crucial difference between the Switzerland international and Arsenal’s previous deep-lying playmakers. Xhaka’s squat frame makes him difficult to shake off the ball, and equally ensures that he is robust in the tackle.

This is a ball-winner as well as a ball-player. Xhaka rarely shirks from a challenge, as evidenced by his record of seven yellow cards (including three reds) in 27 Bundesliga appearances. Bookings are inevitable when you’re dedicated to your defensive duties, and Xhaka certainly is that.

At Arsenal, Francis Coquelin is thought of as the most defensive-minded member of the midfield. He averaged four defensive actions (blocks, interceptions or clearances) per game. Xhaka managed five. He is both playmaker and protector.

The manner in which he assumes responsibility is an integral part of his character. Arsenal are occasionally accused of lacking leadership, and Xhaka should help assuage that particular problem. He was made captain of his club aged just 22, and he has a natural authority on the field.

As Hitzfeld was quoted as saying in the Mirror: “I am convinced that he still has a great career ahead of him. He is a leader, a player who is responsible and self-confident”.

It will be fascinating to see how he fits into the current Arsenal midfield. Having parted with £30 million to secure his signature, it’s fair to say he will be an important part of Wenger’s plans.

Moenchengladbach's Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka is sent off during the German first division Bundesliga football match Borussia Moenchengladbach vs SV Darmstadt in Moenchengladbach, western Germany on December 20, 2015.  / AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ / RESTRIC
PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

As a left-footer, Xhaka will bring some much-needed balance to Wenger’s midfield options. However, it’s still difficult to pin down exactly who will be used alongside him. In Cazorla, Coquelin, Elneny, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, the Gunners boss has a plethora of selection possibilities.

The likelihood is that Wenger will persist with the 4-2-3-1 system that has become customary at the Emirates Stadium, with Xhaka filling one of the two deep-lying midfield roles.

Although Coquelin formed an essential part of Arsenal’s team through the calendar year of 2015, there were signs that Wenger might be losing faith in him at the back end of last season. Elneny was generally preferred over the combative Frenchman, with Ramsey as his partner.

Wenger may feel that Xhaka can do Coquelin’s job—and more. As explained, he’s capable of providing protection for the back four as well as helping to get Arsenal’s passing game going.

Xhaka could well be paired with Ramsey. The Welshman’s best performances for Arsenal came in 2013/14 with Arteta as his partner, and Wenger may be hoping that the Swiss midfielder can help recreate that beautifully balanced duo.

Alternatively, Ramsey could be pushed wide, allowing Wenger to deploy one of Wilshere or Cazorla next to Xhaka. With two ball-players of that quality in the midfield, Arsenal would be able to control possession like never before.

What’s clear is that Xhaka’s arrival gives Wenger options. Like Elneny, he seems capable of flourishing alongside a number of potential partners. He will bring flexibility, ferocious tackling, and an outstanding eye for a pass.

It looks as if Arsenal’s midfield has a new general. 

 

*All stats via Squawka

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.

Where can I comment?

Stay on your game

Latest news, insights, and forecasts on your teams across leagues.

Choose Teams
Get it on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Real-time news for your teams right on your mobile device.

Download
Copyright © 2017 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved. BleacherReport.com is part of Bleacher Report – Turner Sports Network, part of the Turner Sports and Entertainment Network. Certain photos copyright © 2017 Getty Images. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of Getty Images is strictly prohibited. AdChoices