Arsenal and Granit Xhaka: The balance of protecting and being protected

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 08: Hakan Calhanoglu of AC Milan competes for the ball withGranit Xhaka of Arsenal during UEFA Europa League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro on March 8, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 08: Hakan Calhanoglu of AC Milan competes for the ball withGranit Xhaka of Arsenal during UEFA Europa League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro on March 8, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images) /
facebooktwitterreddit

Granit Xhaka put in his best performance in an Arsenal shirt in their win over AC Milan on Thursday. The reason? Arsene Wenger protected him so that he could protect others.

I have, perhaps justifiably, been highly critical of Granit Xhaka this season. Playing primarily as the deepest-lying midfielder, tasked with anchoring the foundations of the team, screening the defence, and then instigating play in possession, the Arsenal midfielder has found himself drastically exploited at several points.

Catch the latest episode of the Pain in the Arsenal podcast right here

His lack of mobility and athleticism is perhaps the starkest shortcoming, especially when defending vast spaces. But there are other weaknesses to his game. He lacks a natural sense of danger. He is over-eager in trying to win the ball back, often vacating his position with rash decisions. His passing is far too inconsistent. He flounders when pressed by the opposition, unable to distribute quickly and accurately.

More from Pain in the Arsenal

However, as Arsenal, utterly bereft form and belief, travelled to Italy to face an invigorated AC Milan in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final, Xhaka proceeded to put in his best performance of his season-and-a-half in North London. Far more disciplined than usual, he passed the ball excellently, maintaining a game-high 95% pass-completion rate, and sat deep enough to simply wipe up the loose crumbs of the faltering Milan attacks.

The key to his display was the system in which Arsene Wenger fielded him. Rather than implement a more traditional 4-2-3-1 shape that asks the central-attacking-midfielder to push up and support the lone centre-forward, Wenger fielded Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in partnering box-to-box role. Of the two, it was Wilshere who was the number 10, pushed a little higher up the pitch, but he was given the defensive responsibility of a central midfielder.

Having two players with such energy and engines flanking him helped Xhaka enormously. He was not committed to charging down opposing players high up the pitch, allowing the distance between him and the defence to grow beyond the necessary level, meaning that he could simply sit in and marshal from deeper.

The protection that Wenger provided Xhaka, in turn, allowed Xhaka to properly protect the defence. This has been his most worrying shortcoming this season. Because of a number of factors, from ill-discipline and a lack of mobility to a poor reading of the game and a midfield partner who is not so positionally structured, Arsenal’s defence has been continually exposed thanks to a lack of protection from the midfield.

That was most certainly not the case here. Perhaps the most crucial aspect was the compactness of the collective unit. Other than a few lapses early on between Calum Chambers and Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal maintained their positional connection with one another excellently, not allowing spaces to open up, especially through the middle.

Next: Arsenal Vs AC Milan: 5 things we learned

There is, obviously, a long way to go. One game does not suddenly vindicate Xhaka of all the missteps that he has taken this season. But the signs of this protection system were positive ones, that is for sure.