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Granit Xhaka is a problem

Arsenal travel to Manchester City on Wednesday evening. Granit Xhaka will presumably start in central midfield. Given the expected pattern of the match, that is a problem.

Manchester City are a brilliant football team. From the quality they have in the personnel that is available to Pep Guardiola to the excellence of the system that is implemented, they have mastered modern football, excelling in possession, pressing high with great efficacy and impact, and scoring prolifically.

When Arsenal face City on Wednesday evening upon the Premier League’s resumption, they will have to somehow attempt to slow down, contain, and then even upset one of the best teams in English football history. It is not going to be easy.

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What makes City so difficult to get to grips with is their command of central midfield and the way in which they manipulate the opposing defenders in central areas. From Rodri and Fernandinho in deeper areas to the wingers staying high and wide, City essentially create a mini two-vs-two in central areas with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva slighted to either side of a holding midfielder. It is in these instances where they are so dangerous.

Silva is silky smooth in the inside-left channel. He links up with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane brilliantly in that role, playing slicing through passes between opposition defences, floating in between the pockets of space, looking to receive the ball on the half-turn. He is a quintessential Spanish number 10.

De Bruyne is slightly more agricultural, though even more effective. He drives, barrages, bursts, rather than gracefully floats. His crossing from the inside-right position is inch-perfect, he can shoot and score from distance, and he is coincidentally on pace to break Thierry Henry’s assist record this season. Between the pair, City both crowd central areas and spread the defence out, engineering space for de Bruyne and Silva to drift between.

It is very difficult to stop. Arsenal have experienced as much in the past. De Bruyne ripped them to shreds in the return fixture in December, pulling the midfield apart as he exploited the space that the City system creates. There is one midfielder which this opposing style is especially concerning for.

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While Granit Xhaka’s performances have improved drastically under Mikel Arteta, his weaknesses have not magically disappeared. His immobility, poor positioning, lack of sense of danger, and difficulty with dealing with the high press are all still present. Rather than address these shortcomings, some of which are unfixable, Arteta has hidden him with a clever system that drops Xhaka away from the hectic, fast-paced midfield.

It is clear that City will exploit Xhaka. The Swiss international is ripe to be manipulated, which is what City do best. He can be outmanoeuvred easily, pulled into and out of position without much difficulty, and will gift possession if pressed quickly. Put simply, knowing what City want to do to midfielders, Xhaka is their perfect opponent.

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That does not mean that Xhaka should be dropped. Sadly, with Lucas Torreira absent through injury, Arsenal do not have any other midfielder who isn’t easily manipulated or immobile. Aretta, then, may have to roll with what he has. It might not end well.

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