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Granit Xhaka isn’t the player Wenger seems to think he is

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Unpacking a very puzzling statement.

Watford v Arsenal - Premier League
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Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

As you’re no doubt aware, Arsene Wenger bought Granit Xhaka, one of the premier defensive midfielders in the game today, over the summer, to address one of Arsenal’s long-standing deficiencies and finally be able to play a competent CDM. Hooray!

But!

Since Xhaka’s arrival, Arsenal have played five games. So, by now, Xhaka will have established himself as Arsenal’s first choice defensive midfielder, right? And will have moved on to being one of the best defensive midfielders in England?

Uhhhhh....

So yeah. Needless to say, this has caused a lot of anger, frustration, and confusion in the Arsenal fan base. Despite that, we all thought Tuesday would be the perfect day for Arsene to roll out the Xhakneny partnership we all want to see, because Coqzorla played on Saturday, and Cazorla’s age would seem to indicate he shouldn’t play on such quick turnaround if possible (the less said about Coquelin the better).

But, after playing Coquelin and Cazorla for 90 minutes on Saturday, the team sheet for Tuesday came out and...there’s Coqzorla again, with Xhaka and Elneny on the bench. The game played out almost exactly as you would expect, and but for some woeful PSG finishing, could have been a lot worse than the 1-1 that Arsenal scraped.

Xhaka came on in the 71st minute, and Elneny in the 85th; while it’s too reductive to say that the game was 180 degrees different once that pair came on, the game was different enough, and the midfield effective enough, with them both involved that the WHY DIDN’T THIS LINEUP START THE MATCH question has to be screamed from a lot of rooftops.

While not answering that question directly, Wenger today did say that he sees Granit Xhaka a bit differently than most everyone else does:

“I personally prefer him as a box-to-box player,” added Wenger, “because he has the engine, the power and he has the long pass.”

This is where the caveats start: Wenger clearly has forgotten more about the game than I, you, or almost anyone will ever know. But. How he can look at Granit Xhaka and see a box-to-box midfielder, when that’s not at all how he’s been played for the last several seasons - seasons which saw him become an attractive enough target that Arsenal paid £35 million to acquire him - is kind of beyond me.

A little more worrisome to me is this, when talking about Xhaka and his integration into the team:

“for me it’s about pairs as well who work together,” explained Wenger. “You know, Coquelin and Cazorla have worked well together”

That’s not great to me on two levels: One, because he seems to think that Coquelin and Cazorla is his best midfield pairing, and two, because of that, the Coqzorla pairing will be preferred until it no longer works. Which means that we’ll be treated to more games like the last two. Hooray?

Lastly, there’s this:

[Xhaka] will play games and every week he is stronger and better. I think he will have a huge impact as a player.

Well, that huge impact can only happen if he actually plays games, right? It’s been a month, and he’s played substantial minutes twice. It’s hard to have that huge impact when you’re not in a position to make it.

The other question that “every week he is stronger and better” part raises for me is kinda tangential to tactics, and one that I’ve thought of before, in terms of other players - Arsenal always seem slow out of the blocks, and Wenger always says his teams “lack a little bit sharpness” at the beginning of the season.

Why is that? Do Arsenal’s calendars not indicate when the first match of the season is? Other teams seem to cope with the onslaught of a new season OK; are Arsenal’s training methods falling behind the curve at this point? In this day and age, it’s not good enough to say “my players are still getting fit” three weeks into the season; there’s too much at stake to ease into things.

I know it’s a long season, and I know that being fresh in March is important. But I also know that sports science and planning has evolved to the point where being fresh in September and still having enough in the tank in March to compete are not mutually exclusive, and can both happen; what I don’t get is why Arsenal doesn’t seem to think so.