We need to talk about Granit. Is he DM or box-to-box?

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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10 Replies to “We need to talk about Granit. Is he DM or box-to-box?”

  1. Brilliant article, Tim. 🙂 I would just add a small disagreement with your sentence:

    “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.”

    I think he did pretty well in 1998-99 as well. If you take a look at our team and results in 1998-99, we ended up behind Manchester United in the league, FA Cup and Champions League due to lack of firepower (or at least lack of it in the first half of the season). Our defending was as good as it could be – we conceded just 17 goals in the league – but our attacking department had been too dependent on Anelka before Kanu’s arrival. It’s also important to notice that Petit’s set-pieces were our rare source of goal-assists in Champions League. I was watching videos from that first Wenger’s CL campaign and Petit was involved in most of our goals with his long passes and deadly set-pieces. Mesut Özil would be proud of each one of those.

    Speaking of Petit, it’s no wonder that I keep mentioning him whenever Xhaka is mentioned. As Walter can confirm, I had made a comparison between Xhaka and Petit a month or even more before Mr Wenger did. His perfect left foot (Mr Wenger’s note on Perez as a typical left-footed player springs to mind as well) allows him to speed up our game and switch the center of our game from the middle to either wing in a second. Last season we struggled after Cazorla had picked that stupid injury against Norwich City as Ramsey doesn’t offer the same type of ball-transition like Santi does. Xhaka can (sorry, I know it’s lame but I had to) what Ramsey can’t – skip those sometimes boring short passes on the middle that sometimes give too much time for the opponents to organize their defence and give our wingers/full-backs the edge over the rivals who are yet to prepare for their run-ins.

    Now, we have to take something else into account when we compare our team from the end of the nineties with the current one. Back in nineties, full-backs were more defensive minded. They were more expected to keep things tidy at their half of the pitch than to participate in the attack. Central defenders were also expected to keep things clean at their own half while defensive midfielders were expected to win the ball and pass them to the player who actually knows what to do with it. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern were one of the best European teams and they were playing 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 with Bixente Lizarazu and Willy Sagnol/Hasan Salihamidžić as primarily defensive wing-backs. One of three in the middle was usually Jens Jeremies who needed a reminder after every game that it had finished or else he would keep running for hours after the game. His job was to win the ball for more creative midfielders Steffan Effenberg and Mehmet Scholl/Mario Basler. One of three in the central defence was a sweeper – Thomas Helmer, Lotthar Matthäus or Patrik Andersson.

    But those times are behind us. Central defenders, defensive midfielders and full-backs who are in charge only for their half of the pitch would mean a team is halved for an attack.

    That’s why Mr Wenger has insisted that Arsenal have as many mobile players who can play in both directions as the team shape allows. That’s why we hadn’t had a specialist DM after Gilberto and before Coquelin’s emergence. Coquelin’s limits in the attacking play forced Mr Wenger to sign two mobile players who have defensive discipline to keep the shape – Elneny and Xhaka – and enough passing ability to keep our game flow.

  2. I have never seen Petit play for Arsenal (just some goals here and there) as I was 5 when he played for us 🙂

    But I came to know one thing for sure when I started supporting Arsenal… that the out the 3 best pony-tail cut players in the world, 2 of them played for us 😀

  3. He didn’t put Mustafi straight in the team because it’s easier is the CB position (because it’s definately not!), but because he had to due to our injury situation in that position. When the options are Mustafi or Holding or Chambers it’s a ‘no brainer’.

  4. Andrew
    Great post. Wenger philosophy for setting team based on attack sometimes backfire and the team conceede soft goals.
    If Wenger prioritise defence over attack like Maureen who i am sure the majority fans will disapprove.Arsenal supporters love the free flowing attacking game over the boring stuff played by Maureen’who.

  5. Interesting. However, the idea that midfield duos work out positions for themselves is remarkably goofy. Coquelin plays further up, because that is what Arsene asks him to do–during certain phases: (1) When we are building from the back at which time Santi collects and sprays the ball forward, so Coq moves up both to drag the midfield with him amd to offer what has been described in many places as a “decoy”; (2) Coq also is further up than Santi to play the role of ball hunter once we have lost the ball in the opposing half and when the opposing team tries to build from the back. However Coq systematically runs back and aligns (or even is deeper than Santi) if the opposing tem has camped in our half and pinned us back, or on long balls from their keeper. Arsene just organizes the way the ball winning and distribution is done based on who the two in the middle are. With Coqzorla, he has a set structure that he would need to break to bring in Xhaka. Since we know that Colney training involves relentless rehearsing of passing and positioning move (nice interview about it from Arteta a while back) logic states that while automatisms involving Xhaka are being worked out and until they deemed better than Coqzolra, Coqzorla will rule. My guess for the future? Xhaka/Santi partnership to emerge mid-term, with both taking turn ball hunting and distributing, as opposed to the current division of labor…

  6. Hi Andy

    It’s not that the centre back position is easier. As you say, it most certainly is not, as some of my own inept performances there attest. The point is that the CB back role is more ‘standard’. The role a CB plays at Arsenal will be similar to the role they played at their previous club. This makes it easier for a CB to adapt to their partner than a midfielder, where the variations on how to play the position are greater. Adapting to Koscielny is a much simpler task than adapting to Ozil or Cazorla. I appreciate that I am over simplifying in order to make my point, but hopefully you can see what I am getting at. However, you are right that injuries have also played a major part in Mustafi’s selection. It will be interesting over the next few weeks to see how the Gabriel-Mustafi selections play out.

  7. This is a good point, but I think you are slightly over-estimating the role of training ground drills. Such drills are an important part of football coaching and are designed to help players react in a more automatic way to situations that they come across in matches. I’m not sure if you have an insight into the drills that Arsenal are using? If you do that is interesting and may explain the mechanism by which Wenger is encouraging le Coq to venture up the pitch. We should also remember however that football is a fast dynamic and unpredictable game. Training ground drills cannot prepare players for all eventualities, and all players must rely on innate instinct and positional sense as well as generalised and specific managerial instruction. Most ex players testify that Wenger prefers a light touch when it comes to the specific instructions.

  8. Hi Josif. I take your point. I have exaggerated the suddenness of Petit’s decline. He was indeed very good in 98-9, however he did also miss a lot of the season with knee injuries and we missed him in his absence

  9. Dm became a bit (lot) of an obsession over the years.

    I couldn’t accept it was sensible to push forward so often and not have a midfielder who could race back effectively when we are countered. The sight of Mikel, whose defensive instincts were sound in my opinion, running back in vain but not being able to get there in time felt too familiar and crushing.

    But..you point about balance is spot on. Mikel worked fine if we were sitting deeper or if the other midfielders complemented him well and showed good discipline. Diaby, Mikel and Cazorla looked a cracking blend to me and we were solid defensively in their all-too-brief spell together 3 or 4 years ago.

    I’m now very happy with our various options but haven’t a clue what our best pairing is. Coquelin and Cazorla get an 8/10 for me for their time together so far. Not easy to break that up for the unknown and untested.

    Blasphemy, I know, but I’m not half tempted by idea of using a triumvirate for some of the hardest games ( maybe 5 per year), i.e a third central midfielder with good defensive attributes, that can include Ramsey when playing with discipline.

    If dropping Ozil is truly unthinkable, you could shift him left and have the three central midfielders compensate defensively on that side.

    I think we’ll only ever see three from Coquelin, Elneny, Cazorla, Ramsey, Xhaka while closing out games though

    There’s a lot to this defensive midfielder malarkey, and it doesn’t really work to isolate the player from the team. A lot of Schneiderlin’s best work for Southampton was when he’d wait for the ball to be passed by the opposition to a midfielder around halfway, then fly in to pressure them. Off he goes to Utd, and in the majority of games there’s barely any opportunity to use that skill. Oops.

    Maybe Juve’s use of Pirlo, Pogba, Vidal and Marchisio is the place to look. No dm’s there but plenty of good defensive attributes and balance.

    Pirlo’s resurgence from fading man to king was surely all about coaches knowing a two-man midfield was no good for him anymore and making sure the right players were around him to nullify his weaknesses and get the most of his strengths.

    German midfield worth a look, too : Schweinseiger, Kroos and Khedeira worked a treat- could we pick something that functioned similarly? Xhaka, Cazorla, Ramsey, maybe?

  10. WHAT Xhaka arrival has done is give us options for coquelin we now have coquelin xhaka and elneny to provide energy and cover in the midfield. Fighting for one spot. Ramsey and cazorla probably fighting for other spot. Ozil is probably only position that does not have much competition with Ramsey being able to fill that role if needed and reins Adelaide or chamberlain also capable. I think it showed yesterday we lost coquelin but didn’t lose anything in midfield and were able to do my pet hate in second half and coast to victory. This team is not ruthless enough , they get to 3 goals up after that they coast they don’t try and rip teams completely apart and score 5 6 or more. However, we have shown that with the attacking players we have we have scored only 3 goals less than city leading the way with 18. Now our next six games are probably more important as we play four lower tier sides followed by spuds and Utd . In that same period city play spuds and Everton in their next two I believe these two are the games we can gain some lost ground. Yesterday I thought first half we were probably at the best we have been in a long time quick fluid one touch stuff that ripped teams apart if we can improve on that the title this season is going to be interesting. Of course there is long way to go and people are talking about psychological hurdles and putting us in contention for title but in my opinion we have one to overcome if we are to win title this season and that’s beating mourhino and Utd at least once. I have seen plenty of Utd matches this season as my mate is a Utd fan and now he doesn’t have sport packages he comes to mine to watch them and they are not that great even yesterday they were not impressive it was more a case of a poor defensive display from Leicester for the majority of the goals.

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