By Tony Attwood
There was a piece in the Guardian this summer which said, “for years, Arsène Wenger has been accused of buying too many playmakers. Now he’s discovered the joy of playbreakers: in addition to Francis Coquelin, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, he wants to sign Duracell bunny N’Golo Kanté from Leicester.”
We don’t seem to be signing Kanté – although he seems to be not making a decision about his future either way at the moment, but that wasn’t what drew me back to that rather silly comment above. More it was whether it was fair to see Xhaka as a defensive midfielder – a direct replacement to Francis Coquelin as some have suggested, or something else.
Xhaka’s youthful idol was Zinedine Zidane but former national team manager Ottmar Hitzfeld once called him to a “young Schweinsteiger” instead. And we know he has been described as the man who kept things “ticking over” for Gladbach with an 85 per cent pass completion percentage this past season.
According to Who Scored’s statistics he has played 84% of his games in the last season in central midfield and just 16% in defensive midfield. They give his prime strength as passing, with highly honourable mentions for aerial duels and ball interception. He weakness however, (they make it his “great weakness”) is discipline – which means that actually you don’t want him primarily as a defensive midfielder giving away free kicks in dangerous positions.
What he does do is play long balls, which is interesting because Mesut Özil’s style of play complements this perfectly. While Xhaka likes to play long balls and shoot from distance, Mesut Özil’s style of play is short passes and layoffs.
So Xhaka could very readily sit behind Mesut Özil, ahead of or besides a defensive midfielder. Although he does the tackles, that is where he gives away from the free kicks – but he is also brilliant at interceptions. So with Coquelin behind him doing the tackles (and remember he has become less likely to get the cards as he has developed) Grant Xhaka does the interceptions and the long passes, and Mesut Özil does the short passes and layoffs.
Of course this is already looking like a bit of an odd way to line up a team, but then Mr Wenger has certainly changed formats to suit the players in the past. He started out with 4-4-2, and has admitted he wanted the “2” to be Henry and Anelka, but Anelka wanted to leave. So he then gradually evolved a style to accommodate the way Bergkamp, Henry and Pires played when all were in the team together: the number 10 behind two guys who were seemingly each intent to be a left winger who scored.
Certainly Granit Xhaka is an all-action man, which is what Coquelin and Özil are not. I see Coquelin evolving into a “right place right time” man, while Mesut Özil can be anywhere before putting through the pass that looks obvious when done but can’t be perceived by anyone else before hand.
Indeed while with Borussia Mönchengladbach Granit worked with a team that (as he said in an interview) “were the first ones to play three at the back and one v one all over the pitch, forcing Bayern to play long balls.”
So what I am edging towards is a notion that we have here a player who can play in several roles, and whose play will be adapted to fit into whatever team we have available at the time. In other words the ideal man to have in the squad when either a) you have lost four players due to internationals, or b) you have lost them to injury. (It is also the case that since the teams are not handed over until one hour before kick off, and neither side knows exactly what team the other is putting out, having the opportunity to play in different ways is a good way to bemuse the opposition before the game starts).
Thus in a very real sense then I think we could be moving away from the notion of the obvious first XI, and into a world in which several players can swap around, and will do so not just to accommodate injuries but also increasingly to accommodate the peculiarities of the opposition.
And this could be important, because we have seen Xhaka play not particularly well on occasion – Ireland beat Switzerland in 1-0 and Xhaka really wasn’t a great performer in that match. But he woke up with the actual tournament in France, ensuring that Switzerland got and kept possession in their games.
Switzerland played a 4-2-3-1 lineup in France, and in that formation Xhaka had many more touches than anybody on either team in the Swiss games v Albania, Romania and France.
He made over twice as many passes as any France player in the Switzerland / France game and a third more than any of his team mates in any game. And this is not him doing a Gilberto Silva, knowing where to be, intercepting a pass and laying it off five yards to a team mate (although that is brilliantly effective if you have a player who can do that.) Xhaka played the short passes but also the long balls.
Like so many great, great players he always appears to have time – there’s no rush. Just as Mesut can magically perceive a pass no one else can, so Xhaka can find an extra two seconds that are not there.
These are magical qualities that we see very rarely, and from my naive position as an observer, it seems to me that to consider him a defensive midfielder would be a matter of last resort if both Elneny and Coquelin were unavailable for that duty.
Which raises the question, where does Elneny fit into this? He was voted Player of the Month in March and April last season, and it would seem a poor reward for the work he did in helping put together a great run of results towards the end of the season just to relegate him to backup.
My view is that Elneny look like an alternative to Coquelin; each the perfect cover for the other in case of injuries or suspensions. But there could even be a chance of playing both of them if we were particularly short, or if up against a particular type of tactics. And if Granit starts to pick up too many yellows (and like everyone he is going to have to adjust to the “oddities” of English refs, Elneny could slip in to that position.
But here’s another thought… In the ancient days we used to see teams have exactly the same tactics week after week, but I don’t think we have that any more. It is much more a case of looking at the opposition and then deciding what formation to put out against them.
This is especially so, because looking at the squad so far it seems that for the first time we are actually going to have 25 players over 21 in the first team squad. Indeed Andrew made the point in his detailed analysis of the players available earlier this month that at the moment we have more than enough players.
You can see Andrew’s analysis through the link above. I’ve now taken it and put into brown italics the players most likely not to be part of the “25” while adding Takuma Asano. So eight players to “lose” either by transfer or loan.
|International Registration||Squad No||Position||DOB||Home Grown|
|Mathieu Debuchy||France||2||RB||28 Jul 1985||N|
|Hector Bellerin||Spain||24||RB||19 Mar 1995||Y|
|Carl Jenkinson||England||25||RB||8 Feb 1992||Y|
|Aaron Ramsey||Wales||8||Mid||26 Dec 1990||Y|
|Jack Wilshere||England||10||Mid||1 Jan 1992||Y|
|Mesut Özil||Germany||11||Mid||15 Oct 1988||N|
|Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain||England||15||Mid||15 Aug 1993||Y|
|Santi Cazorla||Spain||19||Mid||13 Dec 1984||N|
|Mohamed Elneny||Egypt||35||Mid||11 Jul 1992||N|
|Kieran Gibbs||England||3||LB||26 Sep 1989||Y|
|Nacho Monreal||Spain||18||LB||26 Feb 1986||N|
|Wojciech Szczesny||Poland||1||GK||18 Apr 1990||Y|
|David Ospina||Colombia||13||GK||31 Aug 1988||N|
|Emiliano Martinez||Argentina||26||GK||2 Sep 1992||Y|
|Petr Cech||Czech Republic||33||GK||20 May 1982||N|
|Deyan Iliev||Macedonia||44||GK||25 Feb 1995||Y|
|Matt Macey||England||49||GK||9 Sep 1994||Y|
|Alexis Sanchez||Chile||7||Forward||19 Dec 1988||N|
|Olivier Giroud||France||12||Forward||30 Sep 1986||N|
|Theo Walcott||England||14||Forward||16 Mar 1989||Y|
|Yaya Sanogo||France||22||Forward||27 Jan 1993||N|
|Danny Welbeck||England||23||Forward||26 Nov 1990||Y|
|Joel Campbell||Costa Rica||28||Forward||26 Jun 1992||N|
|Wellington Silva||Brazil||58||Forward||6 Jan 1993||N|
|Francis Coquelin||France||34||DM||13 May 1991||Y|
|Granit Xhaka||Switzerland||29||CM||27 Sep 1992||N|
|Jon Toral||Spain||57||CM||5 Feb 1995||Y|
|Isaac Hayden||England||41||CB/DM||22 Mar 1995||Y|
|Per Mertesacker||Germany||4||CB||29 Sep 1984||N|
|Gabriel||Brazil||5||CB||26 Nov 1990||N|
|Laurent Koscielny||France||6||CB||10 Sep 1985||N|
|Calum Chambers||England||21||CB||20 Jan 1995||Y|
|Takuma Asano||Japan||10 Nov 1994||N|
I found nine in fact, and included in that Danny Welbeck, since he obviously won’t play before January, when a new list can be entered after the winter window.
- Arsenal Reminiscences with ex-Arsenal player Peter Goy
- Arsenal v Liverpool? – we have no players left for the game,shock horror.
- Liverpool and Uefa contemplate suing anti-drugs agency
Arsenal in the 1930s – the full story of 1930/1, Arsenal’s first league championship, has been told in a series of 12 episodes. Probably the most detailed analysis ever published.
- The First League Season, including a review of each player who played in that season
- Arsenal in the 1970s – the complete review of every game and every transfer
- Arsenal in the summer – the transfers, the friendlies, year by year
- Arsenal anniversaries – nearly 5000 entries
The full index to all the series is on Arsenal History Society Web Site