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Granit Xhaka may be one of the most polarizing Arsenal players, often finding himself as the scapegoat for all of Arsenal’s defensive and midfield woes. This sentiment, however, is far too broad and simple to describe Xhaka. At his best, he has the technical ability to ping 40 yard passes with any part of his magical left foot and the physical prowess to dominate his midfield opponents. Theoretically he should be a Xabi Alonso type of player, but with the added physical stature that Alonso never had. The arguments against his lack of pace is not a valid argument as neither the aforementioned Alonso nor Pirlo had much, if any, pace. Thus, Xhaka’s problems stem from his lack of concentration and focus.
With proper coaching Xhaka can match his contemporaries, as there is a really good player in there waiting for his potential to be tapped. Having watched him over the course of his Arsenal career, the frustrations with the player originate from his lack of awareness and concentration over the course of a game. His lack of spacial awareness is so crucial to someone in his position; for comparison’s sake, look at Alonso or Pirlo and the manner in which they could scan all the space around them, already deciding what the best course of action is before they even receive the ball. The term “head on a swivel,” popularized by pundits summarizes this innate football intelligence to always be sure what’s going on around you.
In addition, his focus and concentration issues can be fixed with heavy, detailed coaching, something I hope can be drilled into him by the football fanatic, Unai Emery. One of the biggest flaws at the end of Wenger’s Arsenal career was his laissez-faire approach to direct coaching. He trusted his players to have the required intelligence and ability to win games on their own, without specific instructions on where to be and what to do at all times. This works when you have the likes of Patrick Vieira or Dennis Bergkamp, but doesn’t work as well when you have Danny Welbeck and Xhaka. Players nowadays have become specialized and well-drilled but need assistance as the majority of whom don’t have the innate footballing intelligence to know what to do by themselves. For example, look at the transformation of Raheem Sterling this season under Pep Guardiola: From a wayward finisher into a clinical forward. It doesn’t mean that Raheem was a bad player before Pep, rather that he needs detailed instruction or he isn’t close to as effective as his potential suggests.
Furthermore, the disorganization that the Arsenal side exhibits when Xhaka is not in the team points to his organizational and leadership qualities. In a side severely lacking in both right now, the lack of any discernible midfield shape is evident when the Swiss is not in the starting eleven. In addition, surrounded by fellow midfield colleagues who tend to spend more time in the physio room than on the field, Xhaka’s apparent robustness and ability to play three games a week is priceless.
Obviously if we’re going by FIFA or FM positions then Aaron Ramsey counts as a midfielder, and even I’d find it hard to argue against the Welshman probably being Arsenal’s best player. However, if you see Ramsey during games he’s all over the place, often spending more time in the opposition’s box than his own half. In my eyes, Ramsey is more of an attacking midfielder who possesses an incredible engine, tackles well, and sometimes gets into a good defensive position. Yet, playing Xhaka and Ramsey in a midfield two behind Özil has been exposed over and over again by teams ranging from all reaches of Europe. It’s simply that Ramsey is wasted in a midfield two, given his attacking instincts.
As for the other midfield options, I like Wilshere and Elneny as much as the next guy but to suggest that either are superior to Xhaka is preposterous. Somehow Wilshere manages to be even more immobile than Xhaka and until Elneny develops his forward passing, he’s too limited to start for Arsenal. Therefore, you’re left with only one option: Xhaka. At least when Arsenal goes back to playing attractive football again pundits can coin the term “Tiki Xhaka” and if that’s not worth a starting spot then I don’t know what is.