Granit Xhaka: The answer to Arsenal’s midfield woes?

Arsene Wenger

Reports claim Swiss international Xhaka is edging closer to a £30 million move to North London

Arsenal have had a perennial hole in the base of their midfield. Ever since the departure of Patrick Vieira in 2005, this gap has remained untouched and has been ruthlessly exploited, despite the futile cries of the Gunners faithful from the terraces to find a stopper to the proverbial plug hole.

Indeed, that hole has been freely allowed to drain away whatever good Arsenal have produced going forward. In terms of attacking prowess, Arsenal have always looked good. Even in the uninspiring days of Arshavin and Chamakh, there was a sense that Wenger’s men would always create chances going forward.

The problem, of course, is that this same confidence could never be found at the other end.

In recent times, Wenger has moved to cement the cracks in his Arsenal sides. The arrival of Gabriel heralds the long term end of snail-sprinter Mertersacker, while the high profile acquisitions of Sanchez and Ozil have added a more potent verve to the creative department. And above all, the arrival of Petr Cech installed a world class between the sticks for the first time since the days of David Seaman.

But gaps remain. Notably the absence of a world-class finisher, someone who could convert the numerous chances the Gunners create on a weekly basis. A more reliable, consistent, and well, better version of Olivier Giroud.

The other gap is one at the heart of midfield, seemingly obvious to every outside observer. It is the water carrier, the pace-setter, the controller-general. The midfield enforcer.

This role is so crucial to the modern game, especially to sides who seek to play the game as though it were an art-form, like Arsenal. Europe’s elite all possess an elite defence screener; Bayern Munich possess the masterful Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal, Real Madrid have used Toni Kroos in this role and more recently have seen Brazilian Casemiro take up the mantle for the first time, while Barcelona have the maestro that is Sergio Busquets.

Yet the Gunners have been reluctant to invest in what is clearly an obvious deficiency. Since Vieira's, and perhaps Gilberto Silva's departures, a ball-winning midfielder of any class sufficient to step into a technically demanding Arsenal side has proven to be evasive.

 Infuriatingly, Arsenal have persisted with playing clearly creative, forward-minded midfielders, solely in their midfield core. Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Cesc Fabregas and even Santi Cazorla, have found themselves having to work back on their own goal. None of the above are suited to the role.

Perhaps it is a symptom of Arsenal's desire to play football the 'right' way. Slick passing, intelligent movement, flair, flicks and finesse, all of which are idolised by Wenger sides. The industry of the holding midfield has somewhat been anathema.

That is not to say the problem has been entirely ignored. Indeed, Arsenal thought they had the answer in Alex Song. The Cameroonian midfielder was the perfect deep-lying play-maker. The man to spot a van Persie run, but also the danger sensing midfielder that Arsenal had been crying out for. But he, like so many others including Dutchman van Persie, sought pastures new. In his case, he chose Barcelona.

Francis Coquelin has more recently been seen as a possible solution. But it is quite clear that he is not of sufficient class to fit into a title winning side. Technically, he is step below the impressively high standards set at the Gunners. Yet while this could potentially be excused, his compensation, his defensive discipline and decision making, is plainly lacking too. You only have to look at his ridiculous sending off in the Gunners vital North London Derby in March to see that.

Mohammed Elneny looks to be a promising alternative. Signed from Basle in January, the Egyptian has a presence that is showing signs of adding a steel to an Arsenal side too obsessed with shiny aluminium. Elneny’s performance in the Nou Camp in Arsenal’s narrow away defeat, provides hope that he could be the answer. But he has lacked consistency, just like the rest of his Arsenal teammates this season, who inexplicably missed out on a title that really, in truth, should have been theirs to win.

But one player who might just be the answer is Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international is set to complete a reported £30 million move to the Emirates in the coming days from Borussia Mönchengladbach, and he undoubtedly ticks all the right boxes to remedy the cure to Arsenal's midfield frailty.

Xhaka is your archetypal box-to-box central midfielder, the man of all-tricks, the enforcer and the game changer. Switzerland manager Ottmar Hitzfeld once dubbed him the Swiss Bastian Schweinsteiger.

And the comparisons are merited.

The former Basle man, who joined Gladbach in May 2012 for a fee of around €8.5 million following a cup and league win with Swiss giants, has become the linchpin to a continually overachieving side.

The Germans, with Xhaka at the heart of their midfield engine, have been transformed from relegation-escapees to Champions League qualifiers in a matter of a couple of seasons. And this year, with 23 year old Xhaka as their captain, they look set to qualify again.

Xhaka is the combustible midfielder the Gunners have been looking for. He is the ante-dote to their midfield vertigo.

Technically, he is more than capable of holding his own in an Arsenal XI. His pass completion percentage stands at 85%.

But more importantly, defensively, he provides a bite that Arsenal are most desperately looking for. Consistently he is to be found in the top 30 Bundesliga players for tackles and interceptions – a stat that includes defenders, averaging 2.8 tackles per game.

His discipline certainly is not squeaky clean, having racked up 11 yellow cards and 3 red cards already this campaign. But to Gunners fans used to the feeble Arteta at the crux of their midfield, a touch of fire won’t be a cause for concern.

Xhaka’s supposed move to Arsenal is looking increasingly likely with each passing day, with the Telegraph now reporting the deal is nearly done.

And, for a man once tipped to slip in neatly into a Bayern Munich side, the prospect of tenacious midfielder switching the Emirates should be seen as a mouthwatering one for Gunners fans, who have endured a gut-wrenching season that has seen the club split right down the middle over the fate of their legendary manager.

But, despite the past disappointments, it looks like now, for the first time, the gaps are finally being spotted in Wenger’s squad, and slowly, but surely, they are beginning to be rectified.

And maybe, just maybe, Granit Xhaka might just be the answer to their midfield conundrum. 

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