When Patrick Vieira took the Arsenal jersey off for the last time in 2005, bowing out after scoring the winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup Final against fierce rivals Manchester United, he left a legacy which would be remembered forever but also a gap in the heart of the midfield. Arsène Wenger went through the years in trying to find the right midfield pivot to replicate the glory days and has had some technically functional midfields in recent seasons, but none to the capability, depth and artistry of Europeans big dogs like Bayern Munich, Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.
We’ve seen the likes of Cesc Fàbregas, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere all try to replicate something Vieira gave the Gunners, but failed to take Arsenal to the levels that he set. Despite Ramsey and Fàbregas especially blossoming in the CM role, Arsenal are yet to have a deep lying playmaker slot in beside one another and solidify their midfield to replicate the days of Vieira/Petite and build a formidable partnership in the Gunners midfield.
Last summer, Arsenal signed their first marquee defensive midfielder since Vieira’s arrival in 1996. Wenger found the perfect man to fill the gaping gap in a once great midfield in Granit Xhaka. A player who has evolved significantly in the regista role, a deep lying playmaker who links the play between the midfield and attack whilst staying firmly at the base of the midfield, relying on runners off him to receive the ball so he can use his superlative hawk-eye vision to set counter attacks, refraining pressure on his side due to having the capability to play with the ball in tight positions, whilst also orchestrating the game.
Since his arrival he is yet to reach the levels he set at Borussia Monchengladbach, he is yet to orchestrate the team despite being the prime attraction to Arsenal’s play thus far this season. For a regista to work in a side, the system must be correct, built around their needs to the capacity of where they can then orchestrate and be the main creator. Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo are two of the finest registas in the modern game; they have respected systems suitable to their needs and use tactical intelligence, graceful passing ranges and composure in their play. The outcome is quite clear: Alonso and Pirlo have both hit peaks of their successful careers and have arguably been the most successful modern-day midfielders in recent years. It just shows the importance of having a regista, but also why systematically it is crucial.
Granit Xhaka is yet to thrive in the Premier League despite some exquisite performances. This is due to Arsenal’s lack of system, which is in disarray and not fulfilling the needs for a modern regista. The current system is more balanced to fit around Mesut Özil who plays the 10 role, being one of the last top clubs in Europe to play with a modern day 10, resulting in not being able to control games, which was notable against Manchester City. City have their own akin player in Fernandinho, who controls and dictates the game and covers space immensely, recycling possession and moving his side forward at all times.
Wenger has conducted with a 4-2-3-1 since changing from the 4-4-2 which he used to deploy in the early 2000s. The main issue isn’t just the formation (although this needs to be remolded), but more the system the team is playing. Arsène Wenger prefers a dynamic midfield which suits Francis Coquelin and has utilised Xhaka to play the 8 role without the ball and the 6 role in possession, which leaves him unable to fulfil his full potential. The 8 is not suitable for a regista of Xhaka’s calibre: it takes him out of his depth, asking him to press extensively and ask him to support offensive phases. Xhaka now initiates the first counter press, and if it is bypassed is caught chasing back, trailing behind the play, a situation which should not occur for a player who should maintain the 6 role throughout.
Diawara (Napoli) left compared to Xhaka. Allude to the disparity in dribbled past. Diawara has two mobile #8's ahead of him. pic.twitter.com/QFufDicSWm
— Magnifiqué (@GameChangerEW) January 5, 2017
In the current system, opposing teams can target Xhaka and pressurise him out of the game; this breaks Xhaka’s game down due to him not having a creative partner beside him, leaving teams with a target of stopping the natural DLP which would take a dent on the Gunners build-up play, resulting in Arsenal having no control. Xhaka’s lack of mobility means he can crumble under intense pressure which he may have to deal with due to being targeted as Arsenal’s orchestrator, although he does hold the ability to bypass a press with colossal passing ability through the lines and in space.
For Xhaka to be at his best and effectively play the deep lying playmaker role, displaying his admirable vision, varied precise passing range, tenacity, skill, and prodigious ability he must be in a balanced pivot which provides creativity, stability, and having someone playing the box-to-box role efficiently allowing him to sit in the space between the defence and midfield and dictate.
In the current set-up, he is asked to cover too much ground in offensive areas which leave masses of space between the centre-backs and midfield. Xhaka should never be ahead of the play; he was rarely in front of the ball in offensive phases and often slotted just in front of the central defenders for Gladbach. But, in current circumstances his flaw in transitions are made obvious. Often the pivot has become disjointed during the game, which has led Xhaka being left open in 1v1 defending, another weakness due to mobility/pace. This is clearly noted with the fact Xhaka has been dribbled past often, due to lack of support from a balanced midfield leaving him to defend space, highlighting the systematic flaws yet again in a complete misuse of the summer arrival.
From a tactical viewpoint, the system being built around the regista is essential, and in essence must be built around Xhaka, relying on him to be the main focal point, and being provided with the ball in most opportunities taking the pressure off the over-reliant Mesut Özil.
Arsène Wenger is not the most modern tactician in his approach to the game, nor does he change formation to suit players to their maximum capacity, despite having many fluidly interchangeable men who can play numerous roles. When you think of formations to suit Arsenal’s players, Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile balanced perfectly but attacked fluently which could suit Arsenal’s current crop. 2-1-4-1-2 in offensive build-up which they have been known to revert too would help Xhaka flourish, sitting in front of defenders and recycling possession, having outlets out wide and through the lines but have cover to switch to a back five if needed with Monreal and Bellerin slotting in with Xhaka just ahead of the central defence area.
A change of this significance could be too much of a transition for certain players and would take time adapt. There is the option of a 4-1-4-1 which seems much more achievable. As you can see below, Xhaka being the only holding midfielder and having Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey beside him, the former has formidable work-rate to ensure Arsenal never get overloaded defensively but is efficient in possession too with a majestic 92% pass completion thus far this season. Ramsey will influence/impact the game at both the ends of the pitch which will be helped by his high stamina and bursting runs in possession, leaving Xhaka to dictate and recycle possession.
The 4-1-4-1 formation as constructed above will then see Arsenal approach offensive transitions in a 2-1-4-3 formation, with both full-backs bolstering the attacking options. Relying on the two full-backs to push on and offer as an outlet in wide areas which will be a crucial asset to theattack as Xhaka will pick out players making attacking runs which has worked already this season against flat defences. Iwobi and Özil will come more narrow to support the striker, with Elneny and Ramsey roaming forward to support the attack. Xhaka will maintain the regista role, orchestrating whilst having many options ahead of him to overload the opposition 18-yard-box.
In short, in offensive transitions, Xhaka will be the man at the tip of a triangle from defence to midfield, starting the offensive move and connecting the defence and attack, acting as an anchor holding the squad together whilst remaining the deepest midfielder in defensive phases, ensuring he is behind play so his natural flaws are not exposed.
Wenger has been very strict in his approach, especially in the last three seasons, with the likelihood remaining that he’ll persist with 4-2-3-1 which systematically has its flaws. Bayern Munich and Juventus built their systems to suit their registas and both benefited significantly from winning the league and playing efficient, free-flowing, aggressive football, showing signs of why Arsenal should follow similar suit with Granit Xhaka.
Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka have only played in the midfield together twice, with one performance in the Champions League in particular highlighting why this midfield could be our most functional, and beneficial to one another. Xhaka was dominating the space between the defence and midfield, completing triple figure amount of passes, dictating the offensive phase whilst Ramsey covered the box-to-box role influencing at both ends. Having a pivot of Xhaka/Ramsey could see Arsenal slowly move towards a 4-1-4-1 as spoken about above, which will inevitably stop systematical flaws and progress Xhaka, with him being in his native position, refraining from chasing play. It should be noted that while Wenger persists with the 4-2-3-1, he relies far more on personel than system; simply picking the right partner for Xhaka in the middle may well be enough to rebalance the Arsenal midfield somewhat, as players like Elneny and Ramsey will anchor Xhaka a lot more than the likes of Francis Coquelin.
The regista role is one that takes years to master. Registas such as Pirlo and Alonso truly bloomed at the latter stages of their career. Xhaka is only 23-years-old and is already arguably in the top three in England alongside City’s Fernandinho and United’s Michael Carrick. With time on his side, he could become the best under the right development. Will that be with Wenger? Only time will tell.