Defensive midfield, or DM as we’ll refer to it a lot, has been a problem position for Arsenal since, according to the experts, Patrick Vieira departed Arsenal in 2005. That Vieira was a box to box midfielder and not a defensive midfielder (that role going to Gilberto Silva) is apparently lost on experts, as is the fact that Mikel Arteta was an excellent holding player until age and bad team structure caught up with Manchester City’s assistant manager (I MISS YOU SO MUCH COME BACK TO ME MIKEL).
Francis Coquelin played in the role for Arsenal, and that sort of worked, but was really dependent on other factors, such as Santi Cazorla’s ability to pass for two, and Mesut Özil being really, really good at football, rather than Coquelin enabling Arsenal to be better at playing football or enabling a better team structure. Arsène Wenger finally seems to agree, as he bought Granit Xhaka in May for £35m. Xhaka should be the team’s primary defensive midfielder, and is an excellent #6, who drops deep between the centre backs to build play with his wonderful left foot, while he is also a strong defensive player, being a good tackler and an intelligent reader of the game.
Stylistically, if Xhaka is unavailable, Mohamed Elneny seems an appropriate replacement. Elneny came into the side last season as Arsenal slumped towards the finish line, initially partnering Coquelin, but then playing alongside Aaron Ramsey as Coquelin was taken out of the starting eleven. Elneny, like Xhaka, is a good passer and an intelligent player, and is a fine alternative if Xhaka has to miss a game or two.
Coquelin offers something different, but should really be placed in the Mathieu Flamini role; that is, only starting when there is no other alternative. For all of the combative ball-winning, it often means Coquelin is out of position, requiring a real defensive midfielder to cover him. He’s not skilled enough to be box to box player, which is the role he’s been playing in pre-season, and with Xhaka and Elneny, there’s no real reason to play him as a #6, which would require the Cazorla-Coquelin midfield to be brought back. There is perhaps an argument to start him in certain big games, but his role is perhaps best as someone to close games out.
Granit Xhaka should solve a lot of Arsenal’s issues, and he is a player the team has needed effectively since 2014, when it was clear Mikel Arteta’s legs would no longer work. He doesn’t fix everything, but a lot of Arsenal’s issues have related around the speed in which they move the ball and that Mesut Özil is brought into play. With Xhaka in the fold that should not be an issue.
Xhaka will also improve Arsenal’s overall structure, because he knows where to stand, an attribute which seems underrated by many. While it won’t solve longer-term structural issues (and really, only a change in manager will do that), it’ll mean that the defence will be less exposed, which could see an improvement in the form of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, both of whom experienced poor runs of form last season, as well as Calum Chambers and Rob Holding, who don’t need to be broken beyond repair before they’ve even begun (RIP Phil Senderos). After being a weakness last season, DM should return to being a strength in the coming campaign.