We’re now over three months into this season, and the only thing that keeps me wondering about this team and what it can achieve is the curious case of Arsene Wenger’s treatement of Granit Xhaka and his insistence on fielding a sub-optimal midfield in the biggest matches of the season.
The gap was apparent to partisan and neutral observers alike. Following last season, it was clear Arsenal sorely needed a deep lying playmaker if it was more efficiently link every position on the pitch. Santi Cazorla was being shoehorned into a role he wasn’t ever suited for, however doing an admirable enough a job to paper over the cracks that his midfield partner, Francis Coquelin, created. Cazorla, when deployed next to his technically-inept partner, was forced handcuff himself and thus restrict his movement and position for fear that Coquelin would be left in possession and facing an aggressive press. With the Spaniard entering his early 30’s and the club reaping the financial benefits of being in a cash-rich league and city, the summer of 2016 was targeted for a purchase in this particular area of the pitch. So when Wenger acted quickly to bring in Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach, along with letting Jack Wilshere go out on loan to Bournemouth, many fans were elated and dreaming of a new dawn with Aaron Ramsey finally being able to thrive in the middle alongside a partner capable of holding down the center of the pitch once again.
How wrong everyone was.
Since the start of this season Xhaka – Arsenal’s third-most expensive player ever at £35 million – has started only five matches in the league, completing 90 minutes only once, with four other substitute appearances totaling 88 minutes. While he’s started twice in the Champions League, those came against his childhood club Basel, and Ludogorets. When selecting his lineup versus Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Paris Saint-Germain, Arsene Wenger has opted to start Coquelin ahead of Xhaka. Something is wrong, and not a single journalist has asked the questions to find out what that is, and why.
In hindsight, though, we should have seen this coming. Arsene Wenger has long stuck with failed ideas, concepts, and tactics for far longer than should be acceptable. Like the time he fielded a 4-1-4-1 two years ago, shuffling Mesut Özil out wide in order to accommodate Jack Wilshere centrally, to predictable results before scrapping it after crucial points were lost early in the season that were more than welcomed come the end of the year. Or every single instance he’s started Coquelin above other, more technically-gifted options. The matches he forced Ramsey, one of the best young central midfielders, out to the right in favor of Coquelin. And now the mysterious way he’s treated Xhaka since his arrival.
It’s not as if Xhaka’s performances on the pitch have given observers and the club pause as to what sort of player they bought. The traits he brought with him have been on display in every match he’s played in, displaying an ability to pick out a pass and shot from distance with accuracy. In a rational world, it’s easy to envision Ramsey and Xhaka playing alongside each other and shoring up an attack that either goes stagnant with Coquelin in the lineup, or thrives in spite of his presence.
But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where Xhaka and his skillset gets benched in the biggest matches of the season in favor of a guy whom the rest of the team bypasses when in possession. This is not what we thought would happen when Xhaka was brought in, and I think it’s safe to say that Xhaka himself didn’t foresee how this season’s played out to this point. How this all plays out in the end is anyone’s guess.