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When news broke that Santi Cazorla would require surgery to fix an Achilles problem, Arsenal fans would have been forgiven to be frustrated.
Cazorla is their side’s midfield lynchpin, the architect, the man who makes the Gunners click. And the stats prove why the Spaniard is so important.
Since the start of last season, Arsenal’s win percentage with Cazorla in the side is over 65 percent, compared to just 46.4 percent without him.
The 31-year-old’s quick feet and incisive passing are vital cogs to his team’s attacking play, as many teams, and most recently league leaders Chelsea, have found out over the years.
Following his injury, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger seemed to be struggling to find an adequate midfielder to replace Cazorla.
Mohammad Elneny, Aaron Ramsey didn’t quite cut it and the question was raised to Wenger whether or not he needed to go into the transfer market again.
“You won’t find another Cazorla,” he replied. Wenger knew there was already a man at the club who could fill the void: Granit Xhaka.
The perfect opportunity
After struggling to nail down a regular first team spot following his £35 million summer transfer from Borussia Monchengladbach, Cazorla’s injury presented a perfect opportunity for Xhaka to turn his fortunes around.
The Swiss had shown glimpses of his talent before, most notably against Watford earlier in the season, but it was his display during the 5-1 at West Ham that really gave Arsenal fans hope that life without Cazorla is well and truly covered.
Alexis Sanchez stole the headlines on Saturday and rightly so. The Chilean’s hat-trick not only underlined his undoubted class, but also provided more evidence that he is the man to solve Arsenal’s long-standing striker problem for years to come.
It was the apogee of his role as a striker so far.
The real difference
However, the real difference was perhaps the return of Xhaka.
He controlled the play, making 52 completed passes – third only to Manuel Lanzini and Mesut Ozil. The 24-year-old’s equanimity and excellent ball retention were imperative parts to Arsenal’s fluid football – something that has been missing in recent weeks.
Xhaka’s presence also had an effect on the form of Mesut Ozil.
During the games when Xhaka has not started, due to the decrease in quality of passing from the likes of Elneny and Ramsey, Ozil has been forced to play deeper and dictate play from less threatening positions.
It also meant that Ozil has had less opportunity to run into the spaces that Sanchez creates further up the field, which has been a feature of a more goal scoring Ozil this season.
What Xhaka provides is reliability on the ball.
This gives Ozil, Arsenal’s chief creator, the license to take up more attacking positions and combine with Sanchez – a partnership that been involved in 28 of Arsenal’s goals this season.
In the 2015/16 Bundesliga campaign, Xhaka was the second highest midfielder in terms of completed passes (2315), as he starred in the middle of the park for Gladbach.
Every team needs a man to control the midfield, especially if that team’s ambitions are to win the title, and Xhaka looks to be the man to do so for Arsenal.
Adds steel and determination
Yet there is more to his game than just passing. Xhaka also adds steel and determination to his midfield play.
Against West Ham, he made nine ball recoveries, second only to Francis Coquelin, as well as making three interceptions. In combination with Coquelin, the Swiss nullified virtually any potential threat that the Hammers could offer.
It’s no wonder that no Arsenal player has won more tackles in the league this season than Xhaka (25).
What’s more, Xhaka offers leadership qualities. Last season, as skipper, he lead Gladbach to fourth spot in the Bundesliga, earning them another season in the Champions League.
And with Arsenal still yet to find a long-term captain for the future, Xhaka’s captaincy experience makes him a worthwhile candidate.
Therefore, it seems strange why Xhaka has failed to nail down a starting spot in this Arsenal side. Perhaps his occasional rashness in the tackle is something that Wenger is wary of – his red card against Swansea put the Gunners on the back foot in that game.
Xhaka received more red cards than anyone in the Bundesliga last season (3) and was third in terms of number of fouls (73). Yet that may be what Arsenal, a side accused of being too ‘soft’ in recent years, need.
A potential catalyst
Cazorla’s injury now offers Xhaka a chance to have a prolonged run in the Arsenal side.
His performance against West Ham offers evidence that he can not only fill in for Cazorla, but also be the Spaniard’s long-term replacement.
And with all the qualities that Xhaka possesses, he, along with Sanchez, could well be the catalyst behind Arsenal’s title charge this season.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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