Granit Xhaka – the first of many, or another false dawn?

With the final-day Spurs-plosion still fresh on the mind and the European Championships not underway for another few weeks, the news today that Arsenal had (all but) signed a new player – and an expensive one at that – signalled something of a break in convention for the club.

Granit Xhaka, the 23-year-old Swiss midfielder, has agreed to move to North London from German side Borussia Monchengladbach in a deal worth a reported £30m, making him the third most expensive acquisition in the club’s history. The two players who cost more than him, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, arrived in the summers of 2014 and 2013 respectively, and whilst it’s safe to say after years of settling for players worth no more than £15-20m, the club’s fans have begun to become more accustomed to big-money signings arriving at the Emirates Stadium, yet Xhaka’s arrival still feels like something out of the ordinary. With the dust still settling on the 2015/16 season, it has not typically been in Arsenal’s nature to move into the market so quickly, with recent windows being remembered more for deadline-day scrambles rather than for focused and decisive action. So, with that in mind, what does Xhaka’s imminent arrival mean for the club? Is this the first sign of a more ruthless and committed Arsenal in the transfer market or, much like Petr Cech’s arrival last summer, is it another promising start that will not be built upon?

In truth, it is probably far too early to say. Xhaka’s arrival certainly feels like a pleasant early bonus to what most fans might’ve otherwise expected, with the upcoming festivities  in France likely to delay much major business until mid-July at the earliest, but it’s safe to say that if he remains the club’s marquee signing come September, a large proportion of fans will not be appeased. The extent in which his signing should be celebrated depends largely on its context within the window as a whole, and after the manner in which the joy that greeted Cech’s arrival last summer soon turned to disappointment as the club decided not to bother signing any outfield players alongside him, fans are right to be wary when it comes to judging what signing this player means when considering the bigger picture. The decision taken last summer by Arsene Wenger not to enter the market after landing the seasoned ‘keeper certainly proved costly, with long-term injuries to the likes of Danny Welbeck, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla exposing the lack of depth within the squad that Wenger had entrusted with to finally deliver the Premier League title. Significant and lengthy drops in form for the likes of Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud saw goals hard to come by at times, whilst the seemingly ever-rotating title of “dodgiest defender at the club” that was shared between Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Gabriel contributed to some embarrassing defeats that came Arsenal’s way. It was clear that the club needed more to compete and that choosing not to sign more players in the summer backfired terribly for the manager.

What does Xhaka’s arrival mean for Arsenal’s other midfield options?

Wenger’s approach to player recruitment is, and for too long has been, inherently conservative in nature. If he has the numbers already, if there’s not an agreement that he deems good value or if he’s not completely convinced by a potential signing, he will nearly always stick with the hand he’s been dealt rather than shuffling the pack. However, it bears to reason that the acquisition of Granit Xhaka does not compute with his long-held approach to buying players. Perhaps the most eye-catching break in tradition is the fee – likely in the region of £25-40m, considering add-ons and depending on which source you believe – and his willingness to pay it. He may well have sanctioned bids of £35m and £42.5m for Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil respectively, but these instances he knew he was getting two players whose world class status was unquestionable, each signed opportunistically because a Spanish giant had deemed them surplus to requirements. Even though the fees were high, the risk Wenger was taking on with both Sanchez and Ozil is considerably lower than with Xhaka, who for all his potential has only spent one season in the Champions League with Gladbach (although he did enjoy two with Basel in his breakthrough years) and has not yet dazzled on the biggest stage like the German and Chilean unquestionably have. He is still young, of course, and personally I’m encouraged by what I’ve read and heard about what he can bring to this Arsenal side. It’s certainly pleasing to see the club put up the money for someone they really want, but there’s also an element of risk with this deal that makes me somewhat surprised it has gone through.

What also makes the deal feel even more out of left-field is the fact that Wenger has decided to enter the market for a central midfielder at all, such is the number of options he already has. Presuming Ozil stays this summer and continues to occupy his favoured number ten role in a 4-2-3-1 formation, that leaves two central midfield spots up for grabs, and even with the departures of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky, there’s a number of players vying for a spot in the team. Xhaka joins Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamad Elneny and the recently returned duo of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla as one of the six players who are suited for those two positions, and with none of the aforementioned names looking likely to depart the club over the summer, Wenger’s decision to move quickly for the Swiss might well signal a more ruthless approach from him after all. The Arsenal midfield looked shaky and unbalanced for large portions of the last campaign, with Cazorla’s injury in particular meaning the midfield often looked out of shape and too easy to penetrate, and the signing of Xhaka begs the question as to what Wenger plans to do when he has all of his midfielders fit and ready to play (if such an eventuality ever does come to pass). Whatever Wenger ends up doing with those at his disposal, it’s certainly a positive sign that he has moved to bring in a player who plays in a position most fans would agree we need to improve on, and at the very least Xhaka should be able to bring balance and discipline to a midfield that is often lacking in both. It was only really when Wenger opted for the more defensive duo of Elneny and Coquelin did Arsenal begin to look like a somewhat structured outfit, so perhaps Xhaka – a player aggressive in nature but with a keen eye for a pass – is considered to be someone who can help maintain that shape whilst also offering more going forward.

At this early, early stage of the summer, all one can really say with any conviction is that the signing of Granit Xhaka seems to be a good move from both the club and the manager. It’s certainly more than most fans will have thought they’d have gotten before the international football begins in earnest next month. However, as the saying goes, a swallow does not make a summer, and the acid test for many fans will come down to whether or not a striker of real quality is finally acquired, whilst calls remain for a dominating defender and an out-and-out winger. Whether or not this proves to be Arsene Wenger’s last season as Arsenal manager probably only something that he knows, but whether he decides to call it a day in 2017 or not, it remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer window will signal a significant change in tact in how we do business as a club. Lets just hope that whatever the outcome, Xhaka’s arrival does indeed prove to be the start of something special – be it the start of another successful era or one glorious last hurrah. Time will tell.

Callum Perritt

2 Responses to “Granit Xhaka – the first of many, or another false dawn?

  • Whilst TR7, MF20 and MA8 respectively have been good servants to the club, their departures have been left well overdue and it’s good to finally see us make room for young, but established players like Elneny and Xhaka to – hopefully – move us to the next level. There’s more work to be done in our offensive and defensive areas, but this is a good start. Nice piece, C.

  • Callum Perritt
    3 years ago

    Thanks Zenith, I appreciate the comment.

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