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Xhaka: where exactly is he going to play? And who will leave to reduce the excess of players?

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.

Recent Posts

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34 comments to Xhaka: where exactly is he going to play? And who will leave to reduce the excess of players?

  • Rich

    Arsene spoke towards the end of last season about no longer playing with a holding midfielder saying he liked the idea of playing two box to box midfielders

  • Des

    Please do not use Whoscored as any kind of reliable source!

    I think Granit is going to take over from Santi meaning Coquelin and Elneny will cover the DM position. Signing Kante would have given us an amazing central midfield but that’s not going to happen.

    We may have enough players, but we still need additions: players of better quality. Constantly repeating a list of our squad will not make the squad better or stronger.

  • Des, when you make a comment like

    Please do not use Whoscored as any kind of reliable source!

    it would be helpful if you could explain why, with some evidence

  • Jerry

    Hi Tony,

    Excellent write up about the versatility of Xhaka and the how packed the squad is!

    I think I was able to find a little more room in the 25 man squad. If I recall correctly, the cut off date for this season to be considered over 21 is to be born after January 1, 1995 (21 or older on January 1, 2016).

    So based on that cutoff , 3 more spots open up- Bellerin, Hayden, and Chambers so down to 22 players registered.

    I would expect either Macey or Martinez to get loaned out as well to get more first team experience so would free up 1 more position.

    We would still have 8 HG players as well- Jenkinson, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ox, Gibbs, Walcott, Coquelin, and either Martinez/Macey.

    Arsenal did some great planning to accumulate this much talent and still have 3 spots open on the registered list (Added 4, but I think 1 spot will be left open for Welbeck’s return).

  • Josif

    As I’ve said before, Xhaka reminds me a lot of Manu Petit. His ability to switch the ball to either flank with a long pass, swift left foot capable both of releasing a long ranger and a well-placed shot, exactly the same height (185 cm) as Petit…

    Speaking of which, it seems to be a trend for Arsenal of late – adding height to the team (Chambers, Welbeck, Xhaka, Elneny, Čech). I would expand Tony’s theme about different set-ups – our midfield options come in different sizes as well.

    Coquelin is a conservative defensive midfielder who offers interceptions, blocks and recovery pace.

    Cazorla is a deep-lying playmaker, our guide as Mr Wenger calls him, who dictates our passing game, relieves the burden from Özil when it comes to creation of our attacks and enables transition from the defence to the attack.

    Elneny is an elegant central midfielder who doesn’t like to close down the opponents aggressively as Coquelin does but offers more to our passing game, covers a lot of ground in both directions (he makes a pass and immediately goes forward in order to offer an option to his team-mate with the ball) and has already scored more goals for Arsenal than Coquelin. Some might say Elneny is a box-to-box midfielder.

    Ramsey is a box-to-box midfielder as well but he is not the same type as Elneny. Rambo takes more risk with his passing and makes runs behind the defence. Whilst Elneny likes to occupy positions closer to our back four, Rambo’s starting position is more at the center of the pitch.

    Jack is a deep-lying midfielder who is more aggressive in the central midfield than Santi but still has a lot to learn in terms of controlling the game in a way Santi does.

    And, there is also Granit who could be described as a complete central midfielder.

    Maybe the best nickname for our central midfield options would be “Rainbow” as we have a variety of options.

  • Des

    Hi Tony

    Sorry you’re right. I have found Whoscored to be pretty inaccurate and rather vague in terms of player strengths weaknesses and positions. Have a look at a few Arsenal players on there. If you find them accurate then fair enough.

    I think the spuds used the site when they went on their shopping spree after getting the Bale money!

  • Lanz

    Lovely analyses! @ all but Josif especially. I suspect Wenger is planning to convert Ramsey into a striker. Your takes please???

  • colario

    According to the BBC Kante has signed for Chelski for 80millioneuros.

  • William

    Do you think arsenal will make anymore signings? I don’t,he’s got it in his head that arsenal live beyond there means. Has a fan I feel totally frustrated with his transfer policy and hope he leaves at the end of the season especially when you see all other teams signing top players

  • nicky

    If, as I suspect, Arsene is finding it difficult in obtaining his choice of striker in the transfer market,
    I wonder whether he will attempt to convert Ramsey into that role
    Or even give Walcott another chance if his speed hasn’t diminished.
    Potential new blood cannot be forced to join us.

  • omgarsenal

    Wenger has 34 years experience in strategic and tactical use of varied player talents like we have this season and will likely rotate his midfield to accommodate one or all of the following;

    1) Injuries or fatigued players, ( Wilshere)

    2) Tournament-tied players, (Akpom)

    3) Variation depending on opponents,

    4) Offering youth and academy players some opportunities,

    5) Reintegration of recuperating players,

    6) Normal rotation for out-of-form players,

    7) Occasional but rare experimentation with regulars in new positions (Chambers, Gibbs, The Ox, etc.)

  • Kenneth Widmerpool

    Copy and paste to read a few things Arsène said recently…(cheers to Eddy)

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CnZ3d1vWYAA_5UE.jpg

  • Al

    Will be interesting, Elneny has a ferocious shot in him too and occasionally pops up I dangerous areas. I can see a midfield with Xhaka, Elneny and Ozil causing many teams headaches; there’s just too much creativity in there, especially if you throw Santi or someone like Iwobi into the mix. I haven’t even mentioned players like Ramsey, Coq, Campbell, Jack, The Ox, Jeff, Gnabry, Zelalem…where will all they fit in??

    Our midfield is going to be our strongest department, if not the strongest in the league; it already was last season IMO, but about to get even stronger. Great sides usually have a formidable midfield, that’s the heart of the team, and its not a surprise to see the manager concentrating in this area.

    All we need now is to have each guy that plays in the midfield to contribute a decent return of goals; Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona side did so without a conventional striker (of course they had Messi which helped a great deal). I think our biggest problem is going to be these bus-parking teams in the PL, they really are killing football.

  • William

    All the other teams have managed to find a striker, I think arsenal fans are short changed, pay excessive ticket prices I just think the problem is with kronke arsenal is just a team in is portfolio never put his hand in his pocket

  • Samuel Akinsola Adebosin

    Josif, are you saying Xhaka is a Central Attacking Midfielder? Should that be the case then, Arsenal may not need to sign-in another CAMF in the like of Moussa Sissoko of Newcastle Utd who I want the Boss to sign if his agent and club will lower the exorbitant asking price they’ve placed on him.

    The current Arsenal specialist midfielders of: Playmakers, Deep-lyings, Box to Boxs, and CDMFs who I Know are: Ozil – Playmaker, Cazorla – deep-lying, Wilshere – deep-lying, Ramsey – box to box, Elneny – box to box, Coquelin – CDMF and the new central attacking midfielder – Xhaka according to Josif. Those are 7 midfielders in numbers at Arsenal’s midfield to start the new season campaign from August. Are Arsenal still short of a midfielder? I wouldn’t think so, therefore, save for to have a stronger option and cover at midfield, Arsenal may not sign Moussa Sissoko or any other top CAMF after all.

    That leaves us to ponder at which positions in the senior squard team is the Boss likely to sign 2 more new players if Asano is not already deemed to be one of the remastrongernew players pending to be signed. Sure, a top grade quality striker will be signed by the Boss this summer by all allmeans. And a top top quality CHB or a top grade LB or both are being expected to be signed by the yearning Arsenal fans who includes me, but I doubt if the Boss will sign the 2 together this window.

  • Samuel Akinsola Adebosin

    Josif, are you saying Xhaka is a Central Attacking Midfielder? Should that be the case then, Arsenal may not need to sign-in another CAMF in the like of Moussa Sissoko of Newcastle Utd who I want the Boss to sign if his agent and club will lower the exorbitant asking price they’ve placed on him.

    The current Arsenal specialist midfielders of: Playmakers, Deep-lyings, Box to Boxs, and CDMFs who I Know are: Ozil – Playmaker, Cazorla – deep-lying, Wilshere – deep-lying, Ramsey – box to box, Elneny – box to box, Coquelin – CDMF and the new central attacking midfielder – Xhaka according to Josif. Those are 7 midfielders in numbers at Arsenal’s midfield to start the new season campaign from August. Are Arsenal still short of a midfielder? I wouldn’t think so, therefore, save for to have a stronger option and cover at midfield, Arsenal may not sign Moussa Sissoko or any other top CAMF after all.

    That leaves us to ponder at which positions in the senior squard team is the Boss likely to sign 2 more new players if Asano is not already deemed to be one of the remaning new players pending to be signed. Sure, a top grade quality striker will be signed by the Boss this summer by allmeans. And a top top quality CHB or a top grade LB or both are being expected to be signed by the yearning Arsenal fans who includes me, but I doubt if the Boss will sign the 2 together this window.

  • Menace

    Amazing how many play ‘Premier League Manager’. I don’t care who plays where because somebody gets paid to do that job. I just want to know that all our players are fit & available. Wenger never disappoints me with his team & the football they play.

    Looking forward to the new season & the same old corrupt PGMO. Now, if any of you know how to make changes in the FA & their selected officials supplier, that would be a better challenge. We have chosen to walk away from the EU. Can we walk away from the PGMO & their FA parents?

  • Tony

    According to the Arsenal website Isaac Haydon has signed for Newcastle (not on loan)

  • Florian

    Talking about long balls, this is something that might offer Theo a chance for redemption. Last season he was limited to short runs resulted from rapid combinations with a teammate around the opponents’ box. One of the reasons his production dropped. Xhaka’s talent for long balls suit him well when playing on the counter.

  • Josif

    @AI

    Guardiola’s Barcelona had Eto’o, Zlatan, Villa and, finally, Alexis. His Bayern had Lewa in second and third season.

    We do need a 20-league-goal man next season and that’s why we made an offer for Vardy.

  • Chris

    Interesting read and your arguments are well thought off.

    Just a question, or rather a remark.

    Since we signed Granit, just seems Santi does not exist anymore…..

  • Menace

    Santi is a critical part of Wengers Arsenal. Ignore anyone who does not include him in the squad.

  • Rosicky@Arsenal

    Wonder why the blogtettas had to criticize wenger for his breif appearances for TV during Euros? Even he is not allowed to have a one month off to see the Euros in native France.
    The hate for Arsenal manager is simply unjustified and pathetic.

  • William I wonder if you have been reading Untold – the issue is not so much finding a top striker but getting him to fit with the existing line up and being better than what we already had. We scored three fewer than the champions last season, which in itself doesn’t sound like a dire situation. Only 25% of top value signings work in season one. Having the top scorer can make a difference but most of the time does not. I could go on, but all of this with the evidence is on this site in recent weeks.

  • OK William that is your opinion. but on this site we do like to have opinions back up by some evidence.

  • Jambug

    Tony Attwood

    “OK William that is your opinion. But on this site we do like to have opinions back up by some evidence”

    That may well be true, it’s just a shame you ignore them when they do.

    Okay, I realise I’m repeating myself. But why you insist on repeating this requirement I will continue to point out how you chose to ignore people when they do.

    Just saying, again.

  • para

    ” 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.”

    I do not really like the word “hope” but i will use it today.
    I hope this is the case with Arsenal. We now have a squad to choose from and the players should know that there should be no favourites to play, but solely performance based.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    My hope is that stay injury free and get a fair shake from the PIGMOB . Is that too much to ask?

  • Jambug

    Here here Brickfields.

    That alone would give us a very good tilt at the title.

  • jake

    Tony Just answer simply and not like a politician.k a striker ?

  • jake

    Meant to be do we need a striker?

  • “Do we need a striker?” No.
    “Could the right striker make us a better club?” Yes
    “Is the right striker available?” Only someone involved in negotiation and discussion and with a complete knowledge of tactics far beyond my very humble abilities could answer that.

  • Look like a good squad of players. Interested to see if Giroud stays and if we sign a class striker. We have missed a class striker since Henry lets face it.

  • Prashanth

    Hey Tony,

    This is my first comment on Untold and I would start off by saying that I really enjoy the posts on this website; A sensible bunker in this maddening & insane world of internet blogging!

    With the inclusion of Xhaka in our squad I feel that we may be moving towards a modern version of the 4-4-2 with the inclusion of Le Coq, Xhaka, Santi & Ozil in the midfield with Sanchez & Giroud upfront (Albeit moving to the preferred 4-3-3 when not on the ball & while defending). I feel Xhaka is an addition to the 11 as against a replacement. The flexibility lies in the fact that in case we need an attacking impetus, Le Coq will be sacrificed for a more attack minded Ramsey or Wilshere with Xhaka playing as the lone defensive midfielder.

    If anything, the recent Euros showcased the revival of 2 strikers being effective upfront. Sanchez will be most effective playing the Griezmann to Giroud if that can be taken as an analogy.