Since his arrival in 2016 Granit Xhaka has been one of the most controversial figures at the club.
However, with the arrival of Ghanian powerhouse Thomas Partey at Arsenal, Xhaka’s erratic performances may finally be put to rest.
Since the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, a worrying trend has formed spanning across the reigns of three managers. This trend includes the purchase, or emergence, of a high-profile player who is quickly dubbed as the savior of the first team whom fans instantly rest all of their hopes on. Yet time and again we have seen how those players are in some way shortchanged by either the club’s wider recruitment strategy or a manager’s preference.
We have seen this occur recently with both Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, who were loaned out on deadline day earlier this week.
Torreira was billed as the defensive midfielder that would finally solve all of Arsenal’s problems in the center of the park. His glowing performances at the 2018 World Cup made the entire world stop and take notice.
During his first season in north London, we were treated to flashes of absolute brilliance, but over time the Uruguayan was mismanaged and played out of position, ultimately resulting in his eventual expulsion from the first team.
Likewise, Guendouzi burst onto the scene with aplomb and became an overnight cult hero that a vast majority of Arsenal fans held in high esteem. While the young Frenchman’s off-field issues were the eventual nail in the coffin, his lack of a solidified role and midfield partner also contributed to his waning influence during his second season in the Premier League.
Mesut Ozil is perhaps the best example of Arsenal failing to build around a player. Now in the final year of his contract with him firmly out of the manager’s plans, the club has ironically built a team that would be perfectly suited to the World Cup-winner. Partey is exactly the type of midfielder that Ozil never had behind to give him the solidity needed to play his mercurial game. Like Guendouzi, however, the writing is clearly on the wall for Ozil and he may not even make it into the 25-man squad for the Premier League this season.
With all of these other failed experiments in mind, Granit Xhaka stands out as the only misused midfielder who might actually break the cycle. When Xhaka first arrived there was a great debate over what type of player he actually was. Arsene Wenger went on record saying “I personally prefer him as a box-to-box player,” and later revised his perspective and said, “He’s more a deep playmaker I think than a box-to-box player.”
Wenger was also quoted saying that Xhaka was “not a natural defender”, yet the Swiss international has been consistently played as the deepest-lying midfielder with the most defensive responsibility. This early confusion in Xhaka’s Arsenal career has shaped his erratic time at the club. Xhaka has essentially been wasted since his arrival.
Xhaka is a deep-lying playmaker whose best asset is his passing range. He is not positionally adept, particularly mobile or a very skilled dribbler, so his partnerships with Toreirra and Guendouzi were always doomed to fail. However, in Partey, the Gunners have finally found his perfect partner.
As reported by The Atlantic, Partey has spoken glowingly of playing alongside Xhaka in several secret meetings with Arsenal over the years leading up to his eventual acquisition, and it’s easy to see why. Xhaka is a player who brings structure to the midfield and Partey is the man who will bring control. At his best, Xhaka is an architect who can keep things ticking along with fluidity and purpose. Yet fans haven’t seen Xhaka’s best on a consistent basis because his worst attributes have not been offset by his teammates.
In recent weeks we have seen that creativity in midfield is lackin, but beyond that, the team also has a shortage of physical presence to take control of the midfield area. By combining Xhaka’s structured passing with Partey’s dynamism, the Gunners may be able to take games by the scruff of the neck and exert more of their will on opponents.
Partey is a perfect foil for Xhaka. His combination of technical acumen, physical prowess, defensive nous, relentless energy and ability to pick a pass make him one of the best all-round midfielders in the world.
Partey outperformed all of Arsenal’s midfielders in tackles, interceptions, duels won, dribbles, recoveries and goals last season. Rather than being the shield that protects the defense, Xhaka will now be able to move further up the pitch and seek out more provocative passes. With Partey covering behind, using his incredible mobility and aerial prowess, Xhaka will be able to find pockets of space to receive the ball and advance play.
One of the most glaring deficiencies in Xhaka’s game is his positional awareness. Conversely, Partey has an uncanny understanding of space on the pitch as well as a center-back’s eye for reading the game.
No longer will we see Xhaka receiving the ball and slowly turning on his left under pressure. Partey is one of the most press resistant players in all of Europe, he will now be the one tasked with receiving the ball from the defense, surging up the pitch, and distributing the ball up to Xhaka and a more advanced teammate further ahead, perhaps Dani Ceballos, Willian or Bukayo Saka.
Xhaka has been tasked with being the anchorman of an incredibly soft team since his arrival. The Swiss has exhibited grit and aggression but has been left wanting when it comes to the more nuanced aspects of the holding midfield role.
Now with Partey’s arrival, he will be able to play more similarly to the role that he has with the Swiss national team. Freed from the shackles of being something he simply isn’t, Xhaka may finally become the player we all hoped he could be back in the summer of 2016.