Arsenal fans watching Euro 2016 can not fail to have been impressed by Granit Xhaka. Switzerland’s matches against Albania and Romania have been their first opportunity to watch Xhaka in action since he put pen to paper on a deal with the Gunners. On this evidence, Arsenal have landed a gem—albeit one who may precipitate a change in playing style.
That could be a good thing. It’s not as if their current brand of football is producing enough success to satisfy the supporters. What’s more, although Arsenal are renowned for being easy on the eye, there were times last season when they became relatively dull to watch. A change in approach could help the Gunners become more entertaining—and, crucially, more successful.
Xhaka has been one of the tournament’s most impressive performers thus far. In both of Switzerland’s matches he has been named the official man of the match. In the first game, he overcame the emotionally complex situation of facing his own brother to dominate the midfield, completing more passes than any player in the opening round of fixtures.
The Romania clash saw an equally commanding display in the centre of the park. Xhaka completed 95 out of 108 passes, conducting the Swiss play from deep. Interestingly, 16 of those balls were deemed long passes. There is real variety to Xhaka’s distribution—he has a good balance between conservatism and ambition.
That willingness to spray the ball over longer distances will introduce some new elements to Arsenal’s game. Arsene Wenger has had deep-lying midfielders with good passing ability before—Santi Cazorla springs to mind—but the Spaniard generally preferred to fizz passes into the feet of Mesut Ozil, occasionally making Arsenal’s threat predictable.
Xhaka’s playmaking is more diverse. He is just as inclined to loft a pass out to an overlapping full-back on the flanks, or look to knock a ball into the space behind a back four. It’s exciting to think what he could do with runners with the pace of Hector Bellerin and Alexis Sanchez—and perhaps even Jamie Vardy. At Leicester, Vardy regularly fed on early passes from Danny Drinkwater. Xhaka certainly has the vision and technique to find a mobile forward like Vardy from his deep position.
Another thing he looks sure to bring to the Arsenal midfield is a willingness to put his foot in. Xhaka likes a tackle—he was arguably lucky to escape more severe punishment for a very heavy challenge just three minutes into Switzerland’s opening game. However, there is more than mere aggression to his defensive play. In the match between Switzerland and Romania, no player recovered possession more frequently than Xhaka.
Xhaka’s ability to win the ball back opens up the intriguing possibility of allowing Wenger to dispense with using Francis Coquelin at the base of his midfield. If Xhaka is able to operate as enforcer and orchestrator, Wenger may able to field a player with more attacking potential alongside him. Conceivably, Xhaka could be partnered by any of Santi Cazorla, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey or even a resurgent Jack Wilshere.
Last season, Arsenal’s dysfunctional midfield was one of the primary reasons they were unable to sustain their title challenge. Based on his performances in the Euros, Xhaka appears capable of restoring some order to the centre of the park.