When Arsene Wenger described Granit Xhaka as a ‘box-to-box’ player at the start of the season, there was probably no-one more confused than the Switzerland international midfielder himself. The 23-year-old has never been the archetypal ‘runner’ who powers into space and uses his strength to beat opposition defenders, with Wenger’s comments providing an inclination as to the experimentation which was occurring in Arsenal’s midfield at the time.
Two months later, Wenger backtracked on his “box-to-box” comments and revealed that Xhaka is more of a passer than bustling central attacking midfielder.
“Granit is more a deep playmaker I think than a box-to-box player,” said Wenger.
“He does not get in the final third of the opposition half a lot. He is more a guy who has a fantastic pass to play through the lines.“He gets the ball from the defenders and finds the high midfield. His strength is what we call the ‘moderate-value pass’ – the passes that come from deep midfield to high midfield.”
As the season draws to a close we are finally starting to see the best of Xhaka in the role he has been playing in throughout his career. The Swiss midfielder is an orchestrator who makes things happen through his pin-point passing and astute vision which means he is a huge asset for the Gunners, even more so when he’s given time and space in the middle of the park.
Recent games have shown the benefit of playing Aaron Ramsey alongside Xhaka as it gives the former Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder much more freedom to dictate the game from deep. This was particularly apparent against Southampton where the duo had a combined 154 touches, 89.5% accuracy and 14 ball recoveries - the most passes, most distance covered and most touches. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that Ramsey is doing the running and Xhaka is the oil to the Welshman’s engine.
“We adapt game by game and at the moment it has worked, especially defensively it has looked more stable and more solid,” said Wenger in praise of Arsenal’s recent formation change to three at the back.
“But the most important thing through the system is that the positions suit the quality of the players. Ramsey has a bit more protection behind him and has more freedom to go forward and get into the box.
“When he is at his best physically, he has a huge engine. Also he has a sense for the timing of his runs, so when he’s physically strong he can take advantage of his tactical knowledge of the game.“
The Xhaka-Ramsey pivot has played 783 minutes together this season and in that time Arsenal have scored 22 goals (one every 35 minutes) and conceded eight. Wenger’s change to 3-4-1-2 provides the Welshman with ample opportunity to get up and down the pitch and his forays in the final third are reminiscent of his displays for Wales at Euro 2016 last summer.
It is absolutely vital that Arsenal’s midfield partnership gels together going into next season as we’ve seen in previous years how important that part of the field is for taking control of games. Santi Cazorla’s injury issues have laid the mantle down for Ramsey to stake his claim alongside Xhaka and the consensus is that their understanding of each other is improving game by game.
Arsenal could finally have the midfield partnership they have been waiting for and the critics who claimed Xhaka wasn’t suited to the Gunners style of play may be forced to start eating their woods soon. Thirty million for an improving 23-year-old orchestrator doesn’t seem so bad after all.