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Something must give between Mikel Arteta and Granit Xhaka

Granit Xhaka has been crucial to Arsenal’s system under Mikel Arteta. However, if Arteta wants to play in a 4-3-3, Xhaka does not fit. Something must give.

From the moment he arrived at the club, Mikel Arteta made it quite clear that he wanted Granit Xhaka to be a key part of Arsenal’s future. At the time, Xhaka had only just been reintroduced to the first team after being stripped of the captaincy and telling the supporters to ‘f*ck off’.

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He also publicly stated that he wanted to leave, with Hertha Berlin interested in a January move. Arteta, though, convinced him to stay for the remainder of the season.

Arteta did not make it a secret, either. Speaking to media in late December, he was glowing when asked about Xhaka and the midfielder’s future at the club under his management:

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“When I was going from Arsenal to City to start coaching and we were looking in that position, he was one of the players on my list. This is how much I liked him. I was happy when Arsenal signed him because I thought he was going to be a terrific player. He has done some really good things and now he has got stuck in a very difficult situation that, I think, was growing and growing and growing and one day it exploded. But I have been amazed as well by how this relationship is starting to come back a little bit and I think the fans have been very, very positive about him. Obviously it is difficult to change completely the scenario from where he was to a magnificent one. But I think we are in the right direction with him.”

Since then, Xhaka has performed encouragingly. He provided stability and security to an otherwise flimsy or ill-disciplined central midfield. His progressive passing was crucial to the team’s play in possession, while he remained conservative and considered in his positioning, unlike other players at the position. Arteta depended on Xhaka, and the performance of the central midfield without him made it clear.

However, for all of the excellent performances that Xhaka has produced over the past six months, and for however important he may be to Arsenal’s entire set-up, there are still limitations to his game that, at this stage, are unsolvable. He struggles to deal with pressure from opponents, he is overly dependent on his left foot, and his immobility limits his ability to both shield the defence when out of possession and carry the ball to instigate attacks.

And for Arteta, these weaknesses are especially troubling. Hailing from Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system which features a holding midfielder and two ‘half-eights’, which play like a traditional number 10 but provide athleticism, high-pressing ability, and a defensive input that attacking midfielders used to bypass, should Arteta install a 4-3-3 at Arsenal, it is difficult to see where Xhaka fits into the central midfield.

He lacks the defensive awareness and athleticism to play in the lone holding role. Lucas Torreira would be much more accustom to this position. Equally, he is not sharp or creative enough to play further up the pitch. Xhaka is at his best in a double-pivot, where he has a partner to help cover the ground and protect his weaknesses. The 4-3-3, however, exposed his shortcomings.

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Ultimately, then, something must give. Either Arteta must like Xhaka so much that he amends his system, as has been the case thus far, or Xhaka must be moved on and Arsenal must reinvest in more suitable central midfielders. Either way, change must come to the central midfield.

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