June was an interesting month for player developments in and out of Arsenal.
We had the recruitment team working overdrive, a new contract for youth prodigy Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and then there was the contract extension of Granit Xhaka.
This new derived a mixed reception from Gooners. Xhaka was one of the ‘villains’ of last season’s horror show, often his mistakes put under a large magnifying glass and pored over. His defensive work was viewed as a symptom of our downfall and weakness on the pitch.
An interesting article by Tim Stillman on Arseblog highlighted the Swiss midfielder’s vast improvement in the second half of the season though, and how he could yet still be vital to our hopes of success.
An upturn in form he may have enjoyed, but for the sake of objectivity, a spike in context means that there was massive room for improvement in the first place – as highlighted in this article on 7am Kickoff
For a central midfielder, his defensive skills need work. He was outtackled by the likes of Roberto Firmino last campaign, and while he improved in the second half of the season, to increase his defensive output would not have been difficult. Given that we have now acquired a specialist in this role in Lucas Torreira, where does this leave Xhaka?
Xhaka is very much a ‘square peg, round hole’ type of player. His all-action displays for his country and previous club Moenchengladbach gave high hopes of the combative centre man we have craved since Gilberto departed.
Granit is more than that though. While his tackling and interceptions may need work, his distribution success is amongst the best in the League. His eye for a pass and ability to transition play swiftly with a ping of his boot gives us something extra.
Unai Emery is now in charge and Xhaka’s contract extension would not have been offered if the Spanish boss didn’t have plans that included the Switzerland star. Emery is known to favour a pressing game, and if Xhaka is part of the Emery regimen, then it means that Emery knows that Xhaka has what it takes to continue to do what he does in attack, but also rework his defensive aspects.
The heat that Xhaka gets from our fanbase is a little much – but he is a scapegoat because his mistakes have been high-profile and highlighted by the media. Many other players don’t track runners with aplomb and / or lose out when tackling for possession. Yet Xhaka is a dud because of this.
There can be no doubt that the Granit from last season will not have much of a career at Arsenal under Unai Emery, should Xhaka continue with his lapses in concentration. He will need to hone his awareness, and make sure that he gets to where he needs to be. As Emery himself pointed out when commenting on Xhaka’s new deal – he is still young. that means there is room for improvement.
Xhaka has the building blocks to fill in the gaps in his game and be the player we need him to be, but there are justifiable reservations on his starting place amongst us all.
The fact is undeniable. We know he has the talent, but if he were to stay at the level he is now, then the exit door would not be far away. Emery demands more than what the vast majority of our squad put in last campaign.
Xhaka has a clean slate. It is clear he is very proud to represent The Arsenal. Now is the time to use that fierce pride and desire and leave it all out on the pitch, and adapt to Emery’s style.
It will be very interesting to see how he performs – the season can’t come soon enough.