Arsene Wenger Cannot Ignore Granit Xhaka and Must Make Him an Arsenal Starter

James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2016

Arsenal must start Granit Xhaka against Bournemouth.
Arsenal must start Granit Xhaka against Bournemouth.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger is not a manager who is content to waste the club's money.

It's often been said that he treats Arsenal's finances as if they were his own, carefully ensuring the club's budgets remain in check.

It's therefore particularly curious he has spent £35 million on a player he seems reluctant to use. Granit Xhaka is the third-most expensive player in Arsenal's history, but as yet he has struggled to nail down a regular place at the Emirates Stadium. 

That has to change. Arsenal's dysfunctional midfield display against Paris Saint-Germain shows how badly Xhaka is needed. The forthcoming Premier League tie with Bournemouth is the ideal time to reintroduce the Switzerland international to the fold.

Quite why Wenger hasn't been playing Xhaka thus far is anyone's guess. When Arsenal had both Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin available, it made a measure of sense to stick with an established partnership—especially with a new centre-back pairing bedding in behind them. However, with Cazorla now out, Xhaka's absence becomes more difficult to explain.

The last time the Swiss midfielder was picked was for the north London derby on Nov. 6. He performed well in that game, helping Arsenal to dominate the midfield battle. However, he was then left out for the subsequent matches against Manchester United and PSG without any kind of public explanation on Wenger's part.

In both games, Arsenal's midfield looked unbalanced. At Old Trafford, Coquelin was partnered by Mohamed Elneny. Although both players are combative and tidy on the ball, neither has anything close to Cazorla's creativity in their locker. Arsenal's passing was somewhat predictable, and United were able to nullify their attacking threat with relative ease. Asked about his midfield selection after the game, Wenger told Football365:

I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle so I chose players who have experience and fight. That's why my selection was because of that.

However, Xhaka is no shrinking violet. One of his most important qualities is his physicality and willingness to go shoulder to shoulder with the opposition. 

After Arsenal's poor performance against Jose Mourinho's men, it was reasonable to expect that Xhaka might find his way back into the team for the PSG fixture. Instead, Wenger fielded Coquelin alongside Aaron Ramsey. This is a partnership he's tried several times, always without success.

Both players are energetic pressers, but neither has great tactical discipline. PSG's midfielders were able to circumnavigate Arsenal's with intelligent passing, and thus the French outfit controlled the tempo of the game. 

Granit Xhaka appeared briefly against PSG as a substitute.
Granit Xhaka appeared briefly against PSG as a substitute.JUSTIN TALLIS/Getty Images

Xhaka did come on for the final 10 minutes but did little to endear himself to the Arsenal manager. At one point, the Gunners were breaking away on the counter-attack, but Xhaka overhit a pass with his weaker right foot and found touch. It was a simple error and one perhaps borne of the player's dwindling confidence. On the sidelines, Wenger was furious. His frustration with his new charge was clear.

One of Wenger's concerns may be Xhaka's much-discussed disciplinary problems. He's already been subject to one (admittedly harsh) suspension this year, and before the north London derby, Wenger told TalkSport he was troubled by Xhaka's fiery temper:

Am I bit concerned? Yes, of course.

The discipline is important and we want to be effective in all situations we face and in the derby it is important to keep control of your reaction and to have a strong discipline, because it is part of the effectiveness in these games.

Normally he is a very composed and calm guy. Sometimes on the field he has a reaction that is a bit impulsive and he knows that.

It is not because you talk about that. He has to work on that and keep control of his reactions in the game.

However, tales of Xhaka's aggression tend to be somewhat exaggerated. Aside from one undue red card, he has picked up only four bookings in 14 senior appearances this season. It's hardly a diabolical record.

The player himself has told Viasat (h/t Metro) that he is in no rush to change his style:

I knew about London before I got here of course, but I've settled in quick and the team has treated me well. Arsenal knew how I played when they signed me. It can be both positive or negative, but that's the way I play.

Playing rough is my playing style. If someone takes that away from me, I will no longer be Granit Xhaka.

Wenger and his staff must have scouted Xhaka extensively before bringing him to north London. His no-nonsense approach is a key part of his game. He can control it, but he can't discard it entirely—and Arsenal would be a better team for it. For too long, the Gunners have had a soft centre. Deploying Xhaka in the middle of the park would help to solve that problem.

Granit Xhaka watches on from the Arsenal bench.
Granit Xhaka watches on from the Arsenal bench.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

It would also bring some fluidity to what has become a disjointed Arsenal team. Xhaka is a natural in the deep-lying playmaker role. Like Cazorla, he is always willing to drop off and offer the centre-halves an out-ball. He also has the ability to find Arsenal's attacking players early.

In the last few games, the Gunners have not been able to get Mesut Ozil into the match. Without Cazorla, the German's supply line has dried up. Xhaka has the vision and the technical ability to ensure Arsenal's arch-creator gets on the ball more often.

Against Bournemouth, Wenger should be bold and opt for Xhaka alongside Ramsey. He is understandably reluctant to dispense with the defensive security offered by Coquelin, but this is the sort of fixture where Arsenal can afford to take a risk. Ramsey's best performances for the Gunners have been as a central midfielder alongside a disciplined distributor. Mikel Arteta was his best partner, and Xhaka is the closest thing Arsenal have to their former captain.

With Cazorla out, Xhaka and Ramsey are the two strongest individuals Arsenal have available in central midfield. What's more, there seems to be an obvious balance in terms of what they offer the team. Xhaka will sit and instigate moves from deep, while Ramsey will be granted greater licence to get forward.

If it works, it could also help solve the long-term issue of how best to deploy the Welshman. Ramsey has struggled to nail down a regular role in the team. His stated preference is to play in central midfield, but the biggest obstacle has been the lack of a suitable partner. Xhaka could be that man.

It's time for Wenger to start getting a return on his investment. Starting this weekend, Xhaka must be granted the opportunity to establish himself in the Arsenal team.

 

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.