With Mikel Arteta clearly sold on the idea of being tactically unpredictable for opposition teams, he needed the crop of players he inherited from Unai Emery to be tactically flexible in unlocking opposition defenses, while maintaining a balanced tactical shape between defense and attack.
One of those he very much entrusted with such tactical flexibility is Granit Xhaka; a player who many Arsenal fans believed was never really good enough and should be escorted out the exit door at the Emirates Stadium. The gaffer, however, upon his return to the Arsenal saw what many couldn’t see in the Swiss, especially from a tactical point of view. Having modeled his coaching style after that of his mentor – Pep Guardiola, the Spaniard knew exactly the kind of football he wanted his team to play and Xhaka was of course integral to the system to be implemented.
Firstly, Arteta wanted to build a team capable of playing from the back while utilizing players that are naturally comfortable in possession under pressure, and also occupying positions where they can carry-out the aforementioned style with their preferred foot. Playing a left-footed Centre Back in Gabriel was one, with a left-footed Left Back obviously the second, while a left-footed Centre Midfielder was the third piece of the puzzle. The latter is where Xhaka comes in. Instead of a right-footed Centre Back or Left Centre Midfielder playing straight and short passes to a team-mate hugging the lines; but always coming deep to receive a pass, a left-footer occupying the same position on the pitch can easily curl a pass unto a team-mate in an advanced position on the lines to beat the opposition’s press.
Secondly, talking about tactical flexibility, we have seen from the manager’s first full season at the helm, the various tactical shifts he loves to employ during the course of a match: from full backs playing inverted roles which allows box-to-box midfielders take up more advanced roles, to the left-sided midfielder (usually Xhaka) taking up a role I personally call ‘the half-centre midfield role’ where he covers for the overlapping left-back.
With the Switzerland international being the only left-footed deep-lying playmaker with defensive attributes in the teams, he was the obvious go-to-man. To be fair, he didn’t perform badly, but on many occasions he was let down by his lack of pace and his tendency to pick up needless bookings by committing needless fouls did not help matters. This two major factors probably prompted his coach to look for a better option in the familiar figure of Zinchenko.
‘Zinny’ as he is popularly called, is a player in whom Arteta will find all that he wished Xhaka could be for his team; he is naturally an attacking midfielder who is adept at playing the left-back position, defensively sound, tactically and technically talented, he is a disciplined professional on the pitch and, most importantly, he was prepped by Pep. It is safe to say that he needs little coaching to understand what tactical positions to occupy, the movements or runs to be made as well as the timing of those runs – I mean; he’s from the same system as Arteta, and with the manager building what might be a prototype of a Guardiola team, the Ukrainian is the perfect left-sided creative-cum-defensive solution the Spaniard wished he had in the temperamentally unpredictable Granit Xhaka.