We need to talk about Granit
By Tim Charlesworth
There is a lot of bizarre hysteria in the Goonersphere at the moment about why Granit Xhaka is not playing (why spend all that money on a bench-warmer etc. etc.).
It makes me wonder what team some people have been watching for the last ten years? Wenger likes to ‘ease’ new players into the team slowly, and this is not a new policy. He sometimes doesn’t apply this policy to defenders (Mustafi) because the role of a defender is much easier to assimilate for a new player.
We have also been misled by the arrivals of Ozil and Sanchez, neither of whom were eased into the team. However, these players arrived as established superstars, whereas Xhaka is more of a talented prospect like Henry and Pires, both of whom were eased into the team slowly. The £35m price tag is misleading – he is that expensive because prices have risen, not because he is in the same class as Sanchez.
In his press conference on 16th September (before the Hull game), Arsene Wenger was asked an interesting question about Xhaka: whether he saw him as a defensive midfielder or a box-to-box player. To the general consternation of fans, he answered: ‘box-to-box’. We were disappointed because of the perception that Xhaka was signed to complement and perhaps upgrade Francis Coquelin. This is a bit of a theme with Arsenal fans – whenever we sign a midfielder, we assume we finally have the mythical DM that we have all been longing for.
The halcyon days of our midfield were, of course, Vieira and Petit whose stunning performances transformed an also-ran team into double winners in 1997-8. Petit never really managed to reproduce the incredible form of that season, in which he also propelled France to World Cup glory in the summer. Arsenal fans were consoled by the arrival of Gilberto in 2002, who finally filled the Petit shaped hole in a team that became the Invincibles. Gilberto and Vieira settled into a slightly different shape to Vieira and Petit, with Gilberto shielding the back four and Vieira getting up and down the field, whereas Vieira and Petit had played more as a ‘double pivot’.
As Gilberto’s powers waned, Flamini stepped temporarily into the breach, but then he ran off to Milan and we entered the ‘DM-less’ epoch, with fans crying out for a ‘big beast’ to protect the back four. Various pretenders such as Song, Denilson and Arteta failed to assuage our longing, until in January 2015 Francis Coquelin rather surprisingly turned out to be the one we had been seeking all along. During the calendar year 2015, Coquelin put in some of the best DM performances I have ever seen in an Arsenal shirt. Arsenal comfortably scored more points during this period than any other Premiership team, and the two things didn’t look like a coincidence.
But then, in November 2015, Coquelin picked up a knee injury and subsequently looked like he hadn’t recovered properly for the rest of the season. This season, he has looked a little better, but also a little less like a DM, with some perplexing, Songesque forays up the field. It looks like we have lost our legendary DM again.
Elneny looks too mobile to be a proper DM, so Xhaka became our last hope. Now Wenger says he isn’t a DM either, and so the Goonersphere sighs a collective sigh and resigns itself to another season of exposed centre halves and oodles of goals conceded on the counter attack.
The truth seems to be that Wenger just cannot bear the idea of a DM in his team. Song surely wandered out of position because his manager was encouraging him to, and Arteta was the most un-defensive DM you could imagine.
But wait, despairing Gooners. Let’s give Wenger a little of the benefit of the doubt here. Claude Makelele made the DM role famous, and it’s a nice simple one for fans to get our heads around, but in reality, what matters is that the midfield provides cover, not that one individual provides that cover – there is, after all, more than one way to skin a cat. In truth it is midfield effectiveness that we have lacked in recent years. This ineffectiveness has manifested itself in a failure of cover for the defence, but the solution is not as simple as just ‘get a DM’.
Wenger lets his players work things out for themselves, and this seems to particularly apply to the central midfielders. By all accounts it was the players, not the manager who encouraged Vieira and Petit to change their defensive positioning midway through the 97-8 season.
Gilberto was a strong enough character to make his own decisions about how he would play, and I rather suspect that Xhaka is the same. We also have to accept the reality that Wenger’s natural inclination is to encourage his midfielders to move up the pitch. This is one of the factors that produces the attacking style which Arsenal have become known for over the last 20 years.
Nothing comes for free in this life: there is a trade-off between defensive solidity and the contribution that central midfielders make in attack. 66-year-old Wenger is not a leopard who is likely to change his spots on this point, and it may be frustrating to those of us who are more defensively minded, but let’s just try to enjoy the ride.
The thing that really interests me about Xhaka is whether he can bring something else that we have all been longing for: character. When Granit is on the pitch, we suddenly seem to have something about us. He starts doing some very un-Arsenal things like long passing and long-shooting, and the opposition don’t like it. He put in an imposing performance against Watford, but I really noticed it when he came on against Hull. Suddenly Hull didn’t know where the next threat was coming from.
Xhaka’s passing is unpredictable and therefore hard to defend against, the whole Hull team seemed to take a pace backwards in his presence. This ability to alarm the opposition reminded me of the impact that Vieira had when he first came to Arsenal: both are tall midfielders; both captained their clubs at a young age (Vieira at Cannes, Xhaka at Borussia); both are players of mixed nationality (Vieira could have played for Senegal and Xhaka for Albania); both of them ooze character on the pitch; and perhaps above all, both are a red card waiting to happen.
It is nonsense to push the comparison too far, and I’m always wary of labels like ‘the new Vieira’, which don’t really help anyone (and Wenger seems to think Xhaka is the ‘new Petit’). Players are all different, just as people are all different. From what I have seen, Xhaka is more of a visionary passer than Vieira and Vieira had more mobility and pace than Xhaka seems to have.
I am confident that Granit will win his place as a regular starter sometime between now and Christmas (and remember that he had a truncated pre-season after playing in Euro 16). Of course, his place is not guaranteed, as it will depend on factors such as his form, and the form of the players that he is competing with, but I suspect Wenger’s ‘easing in’ process will run its natural course.
So, let’s allow Granit to be Granit, and not worry too much about whether he plays right now, whether he is a DM, or whether he is like Petit or Vieira. Let’ be happy that his presence is making us even think of the Vieira-Petit days. He will play in his style, and in due course he will adapt to the team, and the team will adapt to him. It won’t happen overnight, and there may be ups and downs on the way. Rather than any particular type of midfielder, I hope he is a good midfielder, who becomes a regular in our team, and maybe even adds a dash of ‘character’.
I think that, with a bit of patience, we will see plenty of Granit this season, and learn to enjoy the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that he brings. Is it only me that’s really looking forward to seeing Granit’s earn his first red card in an Arsenal shirt?
If you liked this article, you might enjoy Tim’s book “It’s Happened Again”, which is now available on Amazon (print and Kindle versions). Read a sample chapter at www.itshappenedagain.com
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