Speaking back in September, Wenger expressed a desire to deploy Xhaka in a roving midfield role:
“I personally prefer him as a box-to-box player. Because he has the engine, he has the power, he has the long pass. He likes to come deep and distribute the game, but he has the engine to have the impact with his runs.”
It’s fair to say Xhaka struggled with the adaptation to a more adventurous role. He lacked the mobility to get up and down the pitch in the way Wenger clearly envisaged, and being caught upfield simply exposed the flaws in his tackling technique.
By November, Wenger had rediagnosed the Swiss international as a deep-lying quarterback, telling the club’s official website:
“Granit is more a deep playmaker I think than a box-to-box player. He does not get in the final third of the opposition half a lot. He is more a guy who has a fantastic pass to play through the lines.”
It was a dramatic turnaround from Wenger, and one that certainly raises questions about Arsenal’s scouting process. Ultimately, it was his latter opinion that landed upon Xhaka’s true strengths. He is fundamentally a passer, not a runner — nor even a tackler. Contrary to his image as a burly ball-winner, Xhaka is actually an outstanding playmaker.
That has been particularly evident since Arsenal switched to their new system. Arsenal’s shift to a 3-4-3 was largely intended to protect their vulnerable centre-halves, but there have been enormous benefits in midfield too.