As defeat to Brighton drags Arsenal back into a tight tussle with Tottenham for fourth, several questions circled Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta. With many linked to choices to let certain players leave the club, the most pertinent has to be the one most directly linked to Arsenal’s struggles on Saturday. This is the question of why Granit Xhaka was moved to left back.
Now, the answer one might initially be tempted to accept is that it is injury forced. With Kieran Tierney likely to be out for the remainder of the season, Xhaka was forced to deputise. The problem with this answer is twofold.
First, backup for Kieran Tierney already exists in the shape of Nuno Tavares. Now, let’s not be obtuse here, Tavares is not the perfect replacement. After getting hooked off within half an hour against Nottingham Forest in a shambolic FA Cup loss, Tavares made his great comeback by lasting a whopping fifteen extra minutes at Crystal Palace in a shambolic Premier League loss. Tavares may not be a lot of things, the best passer of the ball, the best sense of danger, but he is actually a left back. Granit Xhaka is not.
The second is the existence of another injury which is the precise reason why Granit Xhaka must play in central midfield, that to Thomas Partey. As a duo, Xhaka and Partey have impressed. In very aesthetic leftie-righty fashion they have gelled to make Arsenal a more formidable team both in and out of possession. If Thomas Partey cannot play, then Arsenal have no midfield if they do not have Granit Xhaka.
It is the precise skillset that Xhaka brings to midfield which hampers him at left back. Let us think about what Granit Xhaka wants to do on the ball first. With the ball at his feet, Granit Xhaka wants to progress play with a pass. This might be a pass diagonally to a full back or winger, or maybe even between the lines to Martin Ødegaard. What you rarely see Xhaka do is dribble the ball forward. This naturally causes problems when playing at left back.
The archetypal full back gets the ball forward by running with it, carrying it up the touchline to get closer to the final third. Xhaka quite simply does not have the mobility to do this. Nor does he have the skillset to defend as a left back. In midfield, Xhaka thrives in the thick of the action, being there to challenge the second ball. The life of a full back is more concerned with a series of 1v1 duels than of ricocheting balls.
Stylistic problems continue when you think of Arsenal’s current left winger Gabriel Martinelli. Martinelli rarely hugs the touchline, instead preferring to get his head down and dribble inwards towards goal. Now, this obviously frees up a lot of space for a full back to ideally break into. Xhaka cannot do this. In possession, it was clear to see Xhaka’s midfield habits creeping in. When Arsenal had the ball he would often tuck in, vacating the extremities of the flanks. With Martinelli cutting in, Xhaka tucked in, and Smith Rowe tucked in, the attack develops something of narrow shape.
Similarly, Xhaka was not well equipped to help Arsenal break quickly when they got the ball. I’m a big fan of his, but quite simply he’s slow. This was not helped by him also being on the side of somewhat iffy passer Gabriel. Very often you would see attacks wither and collapse where Gabriel could not bring himself to make a pass, and Xhaka not being in his usual central position to alleviate this burden.
Quite simply, every other player on the Arsenal team would have benefitted from Granit Xhaka playing centrally this last weekend. The midfield win more duels, they progress the ball more effectively, and the defence have someone to immediately look to give the ball to when they themselves are unsure about what to do.
This is a lesson that Mikel Arteta has to learn. When your team loses a couple of key players to injury, the last thing in the world you should consider is moving around the key players you have left. Xhaka is an invaluable player for Arsenal in midfield. There is no justification in the world for willingly acting in spite of this fact.
Arsenal simply cannot afford to do this again. For the rest of the season, Granit Xhaka must play in midfield. Failure to do this may well be terminal to top four hopes.