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Pablo Maris emergence might eventually spell the end for Granit Xhaka at Arsenal

Pablo Maris emergence might eventually spell the end for Granit Xhaka at Arsenal

Xhaka fulfilled a specific, deeper role under Mikel Arteta, but new man Mari ticks those boxes anyway

PRIOR to this enforced pause to the football season, 2019-20 was a strange one for Arsenal. For the first time since 1996-97, the Gunners have had three managers in a solitary campaign. No player illustrates this rollercoaster of a season more emphatically than Granit Xhaka.

The process of naming him as club captain at the beginning of the season came to represent the confusion of the Unai Emery era. Xhaka took exception to the Emirates boo-boys and openly remonstrated with the home support when substituted during a frustrating 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace. Xhaka has always been an emotional player and the situation seemed to spell the end of his Arsenal career - he certainly seemed to be in no mood for reconciliation.

The appointment of Mikel Arteta signalled a sea change in Xhaka’s relationship with Arsenal, the Gunners coach talked Xhaka out of a January move to Hertha Berlin and quickly made him a pillar of his new Arsenal setup. Arteta repurposed himself as a deep-lying playmaker during his stint as a player at the Emirates and quickly understood how to extract the best of Xhaka’s qualities.

Xhaka is an excellent passer of the ball, spinning the ball through the lines with his sand-wedge of a left-foot. However, his athleticism and occasionally his temperament let him down. When he loses control of situations, he becomes rash and makes errors. In Arsenal’s wide-open midfield he was often left chasing opponents and his lack of athleticism, multiplied by his quick temper led to individual errors that were not so much visible as luminous.

Arteta quickly placed a framework around Xhaka that limited the space in which he was asked to operate. Essentially he moved backwards and left, covering the space Bukayo Saka would leave as he trundled up the left touchline. This move both ensured Saka’s forays didn’t leave huge gaps and limited the amount of space Xhaka was asked to cover.

In this left-sided quarter-back role, Xhaka was also slightly removed from the most congested area of the pitch, meaning he had the time he needed to size up his delivery. In recent games, this has changed slightly. There was a slight sea-change in Arteta’s tactics after the mid-winter training camp in Dubai.

Prior to the winter break, Arsenal were struggling to make periods of territorial dominance translate into goals. Xhaka has moved into a more orthodox midfield role, still veering slightly to the left to provide a barrier against counter-attacks, but not in as pronounced a fashion. Arteta has prioritised Shkodran Mustafi or Pablo Mari over Sokratis Papastathopoulos in central defence and Dani Ceballos over Lucas Torreira in midfield to improve the speed of Arsenal’s circulation.

Xhaka remains an important pillar of the Arsenal midfield, but does he still have a long-term future at Arsenal? Did the revitalising conversation he held with Mikel Arteta in January serve as a placeholder, or was it because Granit is genuinely part of the manager’s long-term plans? Arteta arrived during a very difficult period and losing one of his senior players a fortnight after walking through the door would have been very undesirable, so it would be understandable if there was some expediency on his part.

The crux of the question is really whether Arteta created this midfield role for Xhaka because it fits his future vision for his midfield, or whether it was personally designed for Granit as a diplomatic bridge until he could get the player he really wanted for the screening midfielder role. Have Xhaka’s frustrations with the supporters entirely dissolved or is he simply being expedient too?

My view is that Xhaka will be safe for another year or two - assuming he doesn’t force an exit, which seems unlikely at this point. Arsenal’s midfield needs plenty of surgery, with Ceballos potentially returning to Real Madrid and some level of doubt as to how much the manager values the likes of Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi.

Xhaka is the only current member of the midfield who always plays when fit. However, the introduction of Mari at centre-half might reduce the dependence on the Swiss. Mari has a rapier of a left-foot and is well-versed in covering a marauding left-back from his time playing alongside Filipe Luis at Flamengo.

Mari fills the space Xhaka has been occupying and offers something similar in terms of distribution. Arteta could use Mari’s emergence to wean his team off Xhaka, giving him the opportunity to purchase a more mobile model. Arsenal’s midfield does not produce enough goals and assists and I see that as a priority for upcoming transfer windows. However, that is a long-term project and I see Arsenal and Xhaka striking a mutually agreeable medium term truce.







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Tim Stillman
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