Granit Xhaka: if the (horse) shoe fits…
Over the years the Granit Xhaka debate has popped up on here with the mind-numbing regularity of an Amazon delivery man during lockdown.
But – miracle of miracles – one of AA’s veteran contributors has found a way of throwing new light on this old discussion.
I refer to LB, and his post-match report on our win at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Keen-eyed LB came up with an excellent description for the way we set out to counteract a dangerous and confident Wolves side. He called it “The Horseshoe.” I’ll let the man explain for himself:
“The horse-shoe football that took place for the best part of the first half was clearly designed to drain Wolves of enthusiasm. Luiz to Soares, back to Luiz out to Kolasinac, back to Luiz, over and over creating the shape of a horse-shoe.”
It was one of those descriptions that, when you read it, you went: “Of course! That’s exactly what it was like. Why didn’t I think of that analogy.”
The horseshoe may not have been the most dynamic way to approach a football match, but it was effective in stifling a potent Wolves attack.
The formation – whether you call it a back five, a back three or a 3-4-3 – gave us plenty of bodies at the defensive end of the field including three excellent passers (Luiz, Tierney and Soares), one reasonably decent passer (Mustafi) and one just-about-acceptable passer (Kolasinac).
But what made the horseshoe function, I believe, was the loose nail sitting inside the U of the horseshoe: Granit Xhaka.
Xhaka operated as part of the horseshoe, sometimes receiving the ball from the centre backs and spreading it to the wingbacks, sometimes vice versa.
He played a crucial role in dictating the rhythm and pace of our play (I referred to him in the comments yesterday as our metronome).
Thinking about LB’s horseshoe, and contemplating how Xhaka had played, that’s when I had my “eureka moment.” It dawned on me that Mikel Arteta had designed the horseshoe precisely to allow for the best use of Xhaka.
I think we all know we have a somewhat unbalanced group of midfielders in our squad and, as a result, the centre of the park has often been the area in games where we have struggled the most (too often failing to provide a good base for creating chances and equally failing to protect our defence, contributing to the amount of defensive cock-ups we have had to endure).
If we had a Vieira, a Gilberto, a Flamini, even an Arteta things would be different and we could set up with a back four.
But we don’t, so Arteta has devised a system that best uses the resources we have.
Xhaka is not a defensive midfielder, so playing him ahead of a back four leaves us vulnerable to opponents breaking through the middle. But with a back three/five, it’s a different story. There are enough defensively minded teammates to stifle the opposition and Xhaka is able to perform his main job of keeping possession, moving the ball from side to side and occasionally probing for an opening.
It’s not a glamorous job: in this system Luiz, Tierney and Soares/Bellerin are more likely to be delivering the progressive passes than Xhaka. Xhaka just has to keep the machine ticking over, and he does it well.
We were a worse team after he went off against Manchester City and we were poor without him against Brighton.
I know some will say that Torreira could play as a traditional defensive midfielder, but I just do not see that in him. He is tenacious and hard-working, but he is not physical enough and does not have Xhaka’s positional sense or passing range.
Not everyone will agree with this (LBG mounted a strong counter argument against Xhaka yesterday in comments), but I have now arrived at the truly remarkable point where, when I make my imaginary selection for our up-coming games, Xhaka’s is the first name on the team sheet.