It was surprising to see Arsenal securing the services of £35million midfielder Granit Xhaka in May 2016. With the European Championships quickly approaching—in which a string of good performances would have certainly increased his transfer fee—Arsenal did exceptionally well to sign the Switzerland international in the early stages of the summer.
Yet, amidst all the hype around the Xhaka deal, opinions have been divided as to how great of a signing it really was, with questions being throw around regarding Xhaka’s true quality and potential. A disappointing finish to the 2016-17 campaign rendered Arsenal unable to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since Arsene Wenger’s appointment, leaving many supporters pondering the causes of such a disaster and potential paths toward its resolution.
However, the problems Arsenal have faced in a tactical sense cannot rest on the shoulders of individual players. It is quite arguable that the Gunner’s tactics burdened Xhaka’s natural approach and style, resulting in seemingly disappointing displays on his behalf.
Xhaka is the embodiment of Arsenal’s isolation—the result of systematic and formation-based problems. The club’s implementation of a 4-2-3-1 formation—and now a 3-4-2-1—have yielded difficulties with and especially without possession. Their recent fixture against high-flying Liverpool, for instance, saw Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey make up the central midfield; unfortunately, Ramsey’s high positioning left Xhaka alone to cover space, leaving him exposed in transition.
Liverpool were also excellent on the counter-attack, taking full advantage of the positional qualms within Arsenal’s three-man defensive line. To add, the positioning of Hector Bellerin as a left wing-back was unusual and restricted overlapping runs. A lack of movement into space negated the high positioning on behalf of Arsenal’s attack, making Xhaka’s role— finding players in space between the lines—all the more difficult.
What must be considered is that Xhaka is in fact a talented midfielder with great capabilities, especially during build-up. However, Xhaka’s inabilities—including a lack of pace and anticipation in pressing during 1v1 situations—force Arsenal to play for the player rather than the conventional reverse. Funnily enough, could this dilemma apply to Mesut Özil, too? My opinion is that if Xhaka and Özil are on form, Arsenal will be likewise.
Staggeringly, Xhaka’s lack of support during opposition counter-attacks is only part of the bigger picture. Arsenal may need to revert back to a 4-3-3 formation to accommodate the Swiss; the deployment of an extra central-midfielder would offer extra assistance for Xhaka in terms of pressing and covering space, while allowing the extra midfielder to numerically increase the attack. The reduction of wing-backs—though only featuring in the first three matches of the new season—could also be seen as a step in the right direction.
Would a formation alteration obstruct current structural and systematic faults? Perhaps. A 4-3-3 formation would most definitely benefit Arsenal’s system, as each player would be covered by a teammate when moving out of space, adding solidity when switching from attack to defence.
Continuing, have members of the coaching staff done enough to help Granit Xhaka adapt to a system that is broken beyond repair? The system itself clearly does not fit Xhaka in a coherent manner, and in order for Arsenal supporters to see his best on a consistent basis, improvements to the system are needed. In retrospect, the players—including Xhaka—did seem to show little effort against Liverpool and lacked discipline, which would suggest signs of simply giving up. Could there be a deeper, more internal problem at Arsenal?
If so, where do the faults genuinely lie, if they are the work of one particular factor? The players? The manager? Mentality? Or, do the former two cause problems to the latter?