Arguably the biggest problem in Arsenal’s team this season has been the lack of a functional midfield partnership. With Santi Cazorla sidelined, Arsene Wenger has struggled to find a complementary duo to play behind Mesut Ozil. However, against West Ham we saw further evidence that Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka could form an effective pairing. With the efficient Egyptian alongside him, Xhaka had one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt.
It’s a partnership that makes considerable sense on paper. Xhaka is an immaculate passer of the ball, capable of spotting and finding players from a variety of angles, but he is not the most mobile. Elneny is incredibly athletic, covering huge swathes of ground in every single game. Together, they bring balance to the Arsenal midfield.
It’s actually not the first time we’ve seen Xhaka and Elneny in tandem this season. For example, they impressed in conjunction against Bournemouth back in November, but Wenger has never seen fit to stick with it for a prolonged period. He’s chopped and changed his midfield duo, looking to find a way to crowbar Aaron Ramsey or Francis Coquelin into his XI. Arsenal can ill-afford another period of instability—having found something that appears to work, they should stick with it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey both had to make do with a spot on the bench against West Ham—on the evidence of the game, they ought to remain there.
Xhaka has been criticised for much of the campaign for failing to live up to his £35 million price tag. However, those who’ve watched him regularly will have seen flashes of his quality. Against the Hammers, he managed to put some of the strongest elements of his game together to produce an outstanding overall display.
In the warm-up before the game, Xhaka spent a considerable period of time pinging long balls out to the wide areas. Practice, it seems, makes perfect—once kick-off came around he was unreliably accurate with his imaginative distribution.
Xhaka is the only Arsenal midfielder with the vision to match Cazorla. He sees things early, and has the technique to execute the passes too. It accelerates the play for Arsenal, allowing them to go from back-to-front-foot in an instant.
His confidence was sky-high. Xhaka has been accused of being too one-footed in the past, but on two occasions he sprayed accurate crossfield passes off his weaker right boot. His defensive game was good too: having picked up a yellow card in six out of his last seven appearances, the Swiss international managed to stay on his feet and avoid being booked. When he doesn’t over-commit, he can be an effective defender
Much of his success can be attributed to Elneny, who buzzed around Xhaka ensuring that he always had the requisite cover and support. On the ball, he’s immaculate, always ensuring he retains possession. Without it, he works tirelessly, pressing the opposition and supporting his full-backs when necessary. Speaking to arsenal.com after the game, Wenger praised the Egyptian’s selflessness:
“He gives us fluency and Elneny is a continuity player who is a generous player and wants to help the team. His attitude is always to help the team and he is always available. It’s a quality. He’s quickly available. There are two kinds of availability in midfield. Ones who straight away in a fraction of seconds can understand where he has to go to get the ball and these kind of players.”
Elneny is never going to be a particularly eye-catching player. In fact, arguably his greatest quality is that he makes other players look better. Against West Ham, it was Xhaka who was the main beneficiary of that altruistic attribute. Having found a midfield combination that highlights the Swiss playmaker’s strengths and shields his weaknesses, Wenger must give the former Basel pair a run of games to establish themselves. This, at long last, is a partnership worth persisting with.