Granit Xhaka was missed in Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw against Manchester United. But just because his absence was felt, it does not mean he is the solution to the Arsenal midfield.
Manchester United did not choose to press Arsenal all the much in Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw. It is not really in Jose Mourinho’s way. He prefers his teams to sit a little deeper and remain more positionally disciplined than to push higher up the pitch and potentially expose themselves.
But when they did play with a higher defensive line and challenge their visitors to play through them, it was often the case that the Gunners lacked the requisite quality to move the ball through the phases of play, especially in the midfield areas, frequently leaving the wide centre-halves with few options but to lump a pass up the channel and hope for the best.
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It was noticeable who the absent player was. The much-maligned Granit Xhaka picked up a yellow card in the North London Derby win at the weekend. He was subsequently suspended for the trip to Manchester, with Matteo Guendouzi taking his place in central midfield. Guendouzi did not play poorly in Xhaka’s stead, but it was clear the difference in the team’s ability to move the ball into advanced positions with Xhaka sat at home.
As a response, this has been used by Xhaka’s main proprietors as evidence that he is a crucial piece of this team and that he should be seen as such moving forward. I would agree with that sentiment to an extent — that he is an integral piece of this team in the present — but I would not go as far as to say that he is essential to Arsenal’s success in the future.
Xhaka is a divisive player. There is a great range of opinion on his quality and utility. Because of some rather high profile mistakes, I do feel that the general perception of him is more negative than his actual performances and influence deserve.
That said, I do not believe that just because he is needed in the Arsenal midfield now that he is therefore the solution for the midfield in the future. With improved performances this season, Xhaka has proven himself useful and important to the cohesiveness of the team. But there is still a limit to his efficacy and value.
He is wildly inconsistent, his lack of athleticism is an issue when Arsenal look to press their opponents, especially against better teams with more mobile midfields, and he still goes to sleep defensively, which is criminal at the elite level. Is he the best of those currently available in the squad? Yes. Was he missed against United on Wednesday? Yes.
But neither of those things make him a necessary solution to the future of Emery’s team. For that, he must overhaul his game almost completely, and there is little reason to wait for that eventuality.