Granit Xhaka could be what Arsenal have lacked since Patrick Vieira
FOR around a decade, a frequent lament about Arsenal is that they never really replaced Patrick Vieira. The man who was the driving heart of Arsene Wenger’s great teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s left in 2006; since then, their midfield has largely consisted of neat, nice, skilful players whose balance would be challenged by a healthy breeze.
By Nick Miller
The pain of those who pine for a new Vieira continues, but Wenger might just have signed a player in the mould of his old midfield partner. “He’s a bit similar to Emmanuel Petit in the way he plays,” said Wenger after Saturday’s 3-1 win over Watford. The man of whom he was speaking was Granit Xhaka.
If the Swiss midfielder was feeling his way into the side in his first two games, a substitute appearance against Liverpool and 73 minutes versus Leicester, he appeared to have found his way against Watford. Xhaka was superb as Arsenal swept the Hornets aside, and while they would do well not to go overboard after beating limited opposition who are still getting used to a new manager, the really encouraging thing is what his performance suggested about their future.
These days, it’s easy to think that Wenger is too stuck in his ways, a manager just trying to do things as he always had while being stoutly resistant to new ideas. The image is of a former innovator turned stale, stubborn and unwilling to change, but in signing Xhaka, Wenger at least showed he is considering fresh ways of playing, identifying some weaknesses in his team and addressing them.
Arsenal’s speed of play has been one of those weaknesses. They often look one-paced with their short and intricate passing; it doesn’t help that most (if not all) of their theoretical “wingers” would rather play inside. It means they can be far too narrow, but Wenger seems to have considered this when recruiting Xhaka.
“He has a good mix of short and long balls,” the manager said. “In midfield, sometimes for us it’s good to stretch defences. We have a game that’s based on short passes — sometimes turning players and hitting a longer ball helps us to find some oxygen and space.”
That was particularly evident at Watford, where Xhaka’s passing helped them to open and then stretch holes in the hosts’ defence. Indeed, it could be very useful in games when teams look to defend deep and contain Arsenal, something that’s been far too easy because of how predictable their play can be.
Some of Xhaka’s long passes went astray, of course, but that’s inevitable: The point is, he gives them another option and a different way of playing, and he makes them less predictable. That variation is in addition to the other, physical qualities he brings.
“He has a good engine, he has a good stature, he’s good in the air,” said Wenger. “He has good balance in his game. He has a good long ball. He is 24 and has already played abroad: It’s more reassuring when a player has played abroad somewhere. He was captain of Monchengladbach, he has leadership qualities.”
This is still an Arsenal team with plenty of flaws. There’s the perennial question over their collective fitness, you still worry about their defence and their overall mental toughness, and not too many people will be convinced that prospective signing Lucas Perez is a true upgrade on what they have up front. But what they certainly do have now is options in midfield.
Santi Cazorla played with Xhaka on Saturday and could easily stay there. But they also have Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, meaning the midfield can be tailored to suit the opposition, and if Plan A isn’t working, then Plan B isn’t far away. For weaker teams at home, the attacking thrust of Ramsey or Wilshere could be useful, while for games in which a little more solidity is needed, then Coquelin or Elneny could partner Xhaka.
The problems and frustrations that have dogged Arsenal in recent years mean it’s easy to overreact about them either way: A defeat is amplified as the sure sign of more woe ahead, while a victory and good performance can be taken as a sign that everything is great again. Optimism about Xhaka should probably be tempered, but at least there’s optimism there — something that’s been in short supply of late.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79. And this article was originally published by ESPN.