Playing as a holding midfielder for a possession-based side like Arsenal is a tricky task but newcomer Granit Xhaka should have both the defensive and offensive qualities to become a key player in 2016/17.
After the departures of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal Wenger has wasted little time in strengthening his midfield zone.
Stylistically, Xhaka is probably most similar to Flamini, an all-action defensive midfielder, but he offers a blend of attributes and is excellent at keeping possession, rather than simply regaining it.
First and foremost, the 23-year-old is an extremely powerful footballer capable of commanding the midfield zone. He’s strong and boasts a good positional sense, but also a mobile midfielder who likes shutting down opponents quickly, and makes plenty of tackles.
Indiscipline is perhaps his major weakness, having been dismissed three times for Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015/16, but the Swiss international rightly points out that referees in England tend to be more lenient. More experience, too, should ensure he stays out of trouble.
Xhaka isn’t a pure defensive midfielder, however. In the Bundesliga last season, only Bayern Munich’s deep playmaker Xabi Alonso completed more passes than him, partly because he’s constantly on the move, varying his position to receive short passes into feet. He’s happy receiving the ball under pressure from opponents and is a genuinely forward-thinking footballer when facing the opposition goal.
Xhaka can turn past challenges, using his body in a similar manner to Jack Wilshere, and is happy spraying longer, diagonal balls into attack, particularly towards the right flank. It is the technical, creative side that the midfielder has improved most over the past few years. Often Arsenal have used talented playmakers in a deep midfield role, forcing them to develop the defensive side of their game. But Xhaka is largely the opposite: a feisty tackler increasingly adept on the ball.
A very left-footed player, his unusual range of skills recalls the solid but cultured style of one of Wenger’s old favourites, Emmanuel Petit, who helped Arsenal to the double in 1997/98.
The most obvious midfield partner for Xhaka in Arsenal’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation would be Santi Cazorla, a smaller, nippy pure playmaker who can use Xhaka’s defensive qualities to drift around midfield and dominate the ball.
However, there’s no reason to think Wenger can’t use Xhaka in a defensive-minded duo alongside Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny, a tactical option he often used last season, or with more energetic, box-to-box midfielders like Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere. There’s also the possibility of using Xhaka as the sole holding midfielder in a 4-3-3, a formation Wenger has occasionally deployed with some success.
Like every new signing, Xhaka will take time to adjust to his new surroundings. But with the midfielder appearing a perfect fit for English football, and with his transfer sealed particularly early in the summer, Arsenal fans should be confident he can make a flying start to life in the Premier League.
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