Well well well…another season, another disappointment. Forgive me for starting off so negatively, but there is no point in mincing words – our best chance to win the League for years and we will yet again come up short. While there can be positives that can be taken away from this season (Alex Iwobi being the highlight for me, amongst others), once more this will surely be classified as a campaign defined as “what if?”
One of our main criticisms this season, like so many before it, has been our inability to turn up with the required drive, mental stability and grit to see out so many of the results that we let slip through our fingers. If rumors are to indeed be believed, however, it appears that Arsène Wenger is making a concerted effort to solve one of the many problems that has plagued us since Gilberto Silva departed – having a combative midfielder.
It’s been reported for quite sometime now that we have nearly wrapped up a deal for Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 23-year old Swiss international midfielder Granit Xhaka, arguably one of the most prized central commodities on the market. With many sources reporting it ranging from ESPN to the Express, a deal worth roughly £30 million is all but complete. The question that I, and others, have asked ourselves is simple – is he really the best option?
Being a massive fan of the Bundesliga and a supporter of Borussia Dortmund almost as long as I have been a Gooner, I have had the ability to watch him develop at the North-Rhine Westphalia club… so why not weigh in with my opinion on a player who it seems we are rather likely to have to get used to sooner or later. So, shall we?
Standing an even 6’0 and weighing in at 180 pounds, on the surface, the Basel native by way of his Albanian parents is a midfield talisman if there ever was one. Forming an impressive central pairing with wunderkind Mahmoud Dahoud, Gladbach has relied heavily on them as a source of stability through the spine.
Praised for his range of passing, ability to be the “pass before the assist”, his control of opposition supply lines and, most importantly, his aerial ability, are all qualities that would be welcome additions to an Arsenal first-team that lack balance in the center of the park. Additionally, his younger age is an upside given the fact that he is four years away from his prime makes it a no brainer to most people… but there is some downside to him.
For all the plaudits about his ability to control a midfield, and shield the defense while getting forward if the opportunity arises, Xhaka has been guilty many times this season of using poor judgment as to when to jump into the attack. With the forward thinking Dahoud alongside him, its up to Xhaka, the more defensive of the two, to recognize when he should join and when he needs to sit and shield – he’s gotten it wrong quite a few times this season and it’s cost Gladbach at times. Some say that this is an attribute that will improve over time, but someone of his reputation should surely be more consistent in that area, considering how the likes of Julian Weigl, who is just 20-years old, excels in that department while playing the same tactical role.
If irresponsibility at times is a cause for potential concern, then Xhaka’s recklessness and disciplinary record is a massive red flag… slight pun intended. In a league where the fewest red cards have been produced this season out of the five major European leagues, Xhaka has been given his marching orders three times. That number may not seem too terrible to contemplate to many, but when you remember how easily players are sent off in the Premier League, you should consider that he could easily be seen walking down the tunnel five times in his first campaign at the Emirates, if not more. It would be refreshing to have a player who isn’t afraid to put his physical stamp on a match, something we have missed for years, but at what potential cost? The hope would be that as he matured, his judgment on when and when not to be aggressive would improve.
On the surface it’s quite easy to see why so many are completely convinced that Granit Xhaka is the end all-be all signing of the summer for us. But while many will also argue that real investment is needed (and by that I mean somewhere between three and six players brought in), that our spine is lacking and this would be a signing that directly addresses arguably our biggest weakness and certainly our biggest imbalance in the first-team. But reputations do often speak before further investigations can and should be made…
So the question that now must be levied is just how Xhaka stacks up against our central options who have featured prominently this season and who will be with the club moving forward?
The numbers shown support that he would most likely fit in with our current yet so often maligned tactical approach – ball retention and a build up style of play. He certainly not only has the ability to control proceedings, but also make that diagonal ball and pick out a runner who then in turn would provide the assist… as mentioned before, that assist before the assist. But do we not already have that in Mohammed Elneny and, most notably, Santi Cazorla? Both are players who boast a better passing percentage with proven ability shown to bypass the build up and pick out someone further up the pitch.
Xhaka also doesn’t add nearly enough creativity to the side, not even creating a chance per 90 minutes on the pitch as well as failing to register a single assist this season for a Gladbach side who score goals for fun in the Bundesliga (62 in 31 matches). In this case, the likes of Cazorla shine above all others but also Aaron Ramsey maintains the ability to pick apart a defense more efficiently. So while it may be notable that Xhaka fits the bill from a tactical standpoint, Xhaka would not come to us leading in a single key statistical category other than average length of pass out of the other central options we lay claim to… something that, for me, doesn’t bode well.
Granted, Xhaka’s true ability comes from a defensive standpoint – his ability to be that brick wall that we have been longing for. Across the board his numbers are excellent and no one could possibly deny that, but again, does it well and truly set him apart from what we currently have at the club from multiple sources? His tackles per 90 minutes are quite high, but even Ramsey flirts with the 2/90min mark.
His ability to intercept the passing lanes and win possession back is a fantastic quality that we lack enough of bar Francis Coquelin, and his willingness to sacrifice his body to defend our third of the pitch as well as the wherewithal to hoof it clear if necessary are all things we well and truly could use a heck of a lot more of. He certainly can win a header or two, and that is something we have not had in midfield in YEARS, but the major concern here is how often he hurts his side by the amount of fouls he commits.
As stated before, with the Bundesliga being the league with the fewest red cards produced, Xhaka has not only managed three this season (along with five yellows, giving him the worst disciplinary record in the league), but his hot headed nature and inability to know when and when not to be aggressive is a potential nightmare in the making – not just from a fouling standpoint, but his willingness to always go for the tackle has often times exposed Gladbach at the back more than they’d like, something that can be confirmed by #ABW Radio’s John Welsh.
It cannot and will not be denied that he would improve us in one or two areas, but on the strength of the entire statistical argument, it’s tough to see just how much better we’d be as a side with him, when he can only improve us in very small percentages.
Where he would fit in on the tactical landscape
Gladbach deploy in a 4-2-2-2 that more often than not shifts into a 4-2-3-1 when they go on the attack… something that we as Arsenal fans should be more than used to by now, and something Xhaka would easily adjust to. Similar formations, as well as style of play would mean quick adjusting to a new environment would not only be expected, but also required.
Despite the positive points above, questions surrounding first-team selection would have to be asked and truthfully it could not be guaranteed that he would be a shoe-in for the XI. At Gladbach, there is no better option than Xhaka to be their holding midfielder, one who joins the attack when necessary, but we have already discussed (and many of you will agree, while some undoubtedly will disagree) that Elneny is currently doing a better than expected job in that role.
We have looked our best as of late, whenever that has been, when Elneny has lined up along side Coquelin thus giving us the correct balance in midfield. In addition, it cannot be debated that the best midfield pairing we have at the club is the Cazorla/Coquelin duopoly, with the Spanish international being the puller of strings from deep while Coquelin cleans up the mess we inevitably get ourselves into. And truthfully, that is just the point – who does Xhaka replace, if anyone?
It is certainly no secret that Cazorla is getting on in age and there is no telling how many influential seasons we have left out of him, or even if he’ll want to end his best playing years in London, but his role is certainly not one for Xhaka, who does not have the creativity to replace the midfield maestro. Likewise, he surely has shown a bit of regression this season (truthfully, who hasn’t), but Coquelin still remains arguably one of the best holding players in the country – and Xhaka honestly doesn’t outshine either of them from a numbers standpoint, and can only boast a bigger, stronger physical frame than the unlikely pair.
Moreover, while they still have many a detractor to prove wrong, players like Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are still likely to have a large role to play at this club centrally, especially in regards to areas further up the pitch, while the consistent performances from Elneny are plenty to suggest that he too has now become integral in the first team as someone who provides a bit of balance on both sides of the ball.
I will fully admit that Xhaka appears to be more well rounded than most – his offensive attributes aren’t great but they are certainly serviceable, while his defensive traits are laudable indeed, despite not being the best at the club should he complete a move to North London. In the grand scheme of things it’s a difficult question to answer, but if I am honest I do not think it brings us any closer to clear-cut solutions, or at least, not enough of them.
So where does this debate conclude for me and what is my honest opinion on the scenario? Simple – that, for me, the amount of money we are potentially going to spend on a player who, in truth, isn’t a massive step up in quality currently, isn’t the business we should be doing.
His age lends weight behind the feelings that he would be a solid signing now, but a potential brilliant player in two or three years time, but that is not the business we should be looking to rubber stamp our summers with any longer. If real change is required, real adjustment of balance and quality needed, then a player who can come in and command not only instant respect but also an immediate and undeniable place in the XI is the only requirement, at least for me.
There is no point in me rattling off names of players who I’d prefer over Xhaka because that will just spawn more debates, more questions, and not enough answers. But the honest truth, at the end of the day, is that if the choice is Xhaka or no midfielder at all, then I clearly choose Xhaka – adding depth in quality is never a bad thing. Sometimes, however, you need to aim higher than adding further options, and go out and catch yourself another big fish.
We have done business in previous seasons for Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, world class players who have been brilliant to have – it’s a signing of that magnitude that our midfield needs now… one that will truly put us in the direction of change that we all crave so dearly.
Drew is one of our #ABW Regular Columnists and can be found on Twitter as@AFCBvB1410. When not writing for us, he also writes for Outside of the Boot and he’s a regular on the Football Hipsters Podcast.
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