On the 25th of May, one of the worst-kept secrets in footballing history was given official confirmation – Granit Xhaka had signed for Arsenal. Signing on a five-year deal, the former Gladbach captain became our first piece of transfer business of the summer, a summer that has been suggested to be potentially our biggest yet (Heard this one before I think).
Given the now infamous leaked pictures from his first photo shoot with the club went viral on twitter before this announcement, his addition to the squad was not a surprise; what was a surprise to many however was the price Wenger had sanctioned to get his man – a figure thought to be around £30 million. This would make the Swiss international our 3rd most expensive transfer of all time, and on wages of £120,000 a week, he also becomes one of the few players in the squad to break into the six-figure weekly club. With numbers such as this floating around in the media, you would think that Arsenal had just signed a house-hold name, a man with more sponsors than an F1 car, a midfielder at the heart of a tussle between clubs all across Europe, yet, other than the fanatics, very few have heard of our new man. Other than various different pundits stating their approval of the signing, and brief sightings of him representing Switzerland at this summers’ euros, at this exact moment, many are still unaware of the potential impact this man could have on the team. Coincidentally however, this blog just happens to include a complete profile on the midfielder, which is rather fortunate.
Aged just 23, Xhaka captained former team Borussia Mönchengladbach last season, having previously begun his career at hometown team Basel.Although his total of only three goals and three assists in the Bundesliga last season is not likely to make supporters giddy, his impact from deeper in the midfield should provide a major source for optimism. Acting almost as a quarterback in his play, Xhaka sits deep in the midfield, breaking up play with fierce tackling, and spraying 40 yards passes left, right and center (literally). This accomplished ability on the ball, matched with his ferociousness when winning it back, enabled him to pick up the man of the match award in both of Switzerland’s opening two games at Euro 2016, against Romania and Albania respectively. As well as his impressive campaign for Switzerland (Penalty shoot-out aside), he also enjoyed a stellar domestic campaign; captaining Gladbach to a fourth place finish in the Bundesliga and confirming UCL status for another year, Xhaka also started every Champions League fixture for the German giants, starring in games against Manchester City and Juventus. His dominance over the midfield throughout the season resulted in ‘whoscored’ ranking the Swiss international with an average rating of 7.35 for the season, higher than both Coquelin and Ramsey, who scored only 7.01 and 7.20; this is a further indication of the inevitable boost he will give the midfield, as he is not only providing depth, but arguably a better option in midfield.
At this point, our dear friend Granit seems like the perfect signing. He’s a great passer, weighs in with goals and assists, and is strong in the tackle. Hoooowever, one piece of additional baggage he is likely to bring to North London during the move from Germany is, and I quote from the man himself, ‘aggression’. Read into that what you will, I for one think it’s wonderful we finally have a man big and ugly enough to seek out a fight with Diego Costa and the rest of his orcs, but five red-cards in two seasons does take its toll. Take the North-London Derby in October for example; a rash tackle or moment of (I’m sure justified) violence against one of the those filthy players in white would result in a three-game ban, and his absence from trips to Old Trafford and Upton Park. Although completely theoretical, this highlights the job Wenger has to control and harness this aggression.
Due to his physical stature as well as neat ability on the ball, Xhaka is also able to give a very different option to our, at times very predictable, midfield. Unlike a Cazorla-Coquelin partnership, in which one has technical ability and limited physical attributes, and the other the complete opposite, Xhaka’s possession of both these traits will enable him to fit nicely in the midfield. Likely to replace Coquelin in the middle of the park, there are three players likely to partner Xhaka in the middle – Ramsey, Elneny and Wilshere. The first of these three has just enjoyed arguably the best period of his career, representing Wales at the European Championships. Named in the official ‘Team of the tournament’, Ramsey seems to have rediscovered the urgency and incisive passing in the final-third that was lacking from his game last season. As a result, he is likely to be desperate to solidify his position in the lineup next season, therefore making him the most likely option to partner the new-man in the middle. Elneny, the January-signing from Swiss-outfit Basel, would provide a much more-patient and measured midfield option to complement Xhaka. Yet to score a league goal for the gunners, Elneny, like Xhaka, is very happy to sit back from more-advanced attackers, such as Mesut Ozil, and recycle play from deep. Displaying a great eye for a pass, he keeps the midfield ticking over and, along with occasional bursts from deep, keeps the momentum of the play rolling. Like Xhaka, he also has a thunderbolt of a shot in his locker, and although he is yet to score in red and white, he would be very well suited to a fixture in which retaining possession is vital, and shooting opportunities limited, as he demonstrated at the Nou Camp last season. The third-option, Jack Wilshere, is an enigma in this team. The golden-boy from the academy days, Wilshere still manages to dictate and dominate the midfield on most of his appearances home and away, though, it is now hard to mention him without also referencing injuries in the same breath. Restricting him to only bit-part roles in the two seasons, Wilshere’s hopes of being ‘Mr Arsenal’ have taken a serious hit, with even factions of the Gooner fan-base now categorizing him as a lost cause. Arguably the most frustrating aspect of this diabolical appearance record is the influence he has on games when he does play. As well as dictating from deep, his ‘burst’ from midfield is unrivaled in the current squad, and in terms of sheer footballing ability, it is of my belief that he stands well above that of Aaron Ramsey, a man himself linked with a £40 million pound move to Barcelona. Furthermore, the passion he shows on the field is infectious and spreads like a cancer throughout the team, which, paired with Xhaka’s aggression on the ball, would create a formidable partnership at the base of the midfield.
In my humble opinion, it is a Wilshere-Xhaka partnership that would be most effective. Obviously hugely dependent on the fitness of the former, this duo would combine technical ability, determination and an interchangeable nature that the previous two options do not provide. Acting as a shield for the defense that can also seamlessly link the play to the likes of Ozil and Sanchez, this pair could deliver some serious silverware to the Emirates, and with the fee paid for Xhaka, and the patience shown in Wilshere, there is no expectation big enough.
Overall, after scouring the internet for every Youtube video, newspaper article, pundits’ opinions and watching his performances in the European Championships, it appears we have finally got our midfield general. Xhaka seems to have everything we have lacked in our midfielders in abundance, someone who can pair technical prowess as well as a mentality that ensures team mates will be kept in check and opponents will know who’s in charge. Although his price tag was hefty to say the least, it was no anomaly due to the inflated nature of the transfer market, caused by the increased revenue premier league clubs are able to spend due to the new television deal. I truly believe he has the exact character that this team is lacking, especially when the going gets tough, and as long as he stays away from the penalty spot (cue to type Xhaka penalty vs Poland in on Youtube), Granit Xhaka can transform our midfield fortunes next season.