Xhaka can be the new Petit for Gunners
Watford 1-3 Arsenal
Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30
Granit Xhaka appears to be composed and well balanced, mentally as well as physically, which is just as well given the comparisons with Emmanuel Petit that Arsene Wenger drew after Arsenal's victory over Watford.
The Swiss midfielder is only 23, but as Wenger pointed out, he shows a maturity beyond his years and is mentally tough as well, perhaps as a result of moving to the Bundesliga as a teenager.
More importantly for Arsenal, he brings to their midfield a calm but commanding presence, able to break up opposition play, but also launch attacks with a combination of long and short passing. Xhaka may not be a defensive midfielder in the mould of N'Golo Kante, nor a box-to-box colossus like Patrick Vieira, but if he can make the sort of impact that Petit did, Wenger may have made his most important signing for years.
While the transfers of striker Lucas Perez and defender Shkodran Mustafi are completed subject to "paperwork", the signature of this midfielder potentially gives Arsenal something they have not had since Petit was in his pomp.
"He is a guy who plays naturally behind the ball, a bit similar to Petit in the way he plays football," Wenger said. "He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available for the centre-backs. He has a good mixture of short and long balls, and in midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch defenders.
"We have a game that is based on shorter passes than other teams so sometimes you have a player who can kick the longer ball and it gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space."
Wenger had been tracking Xhaka for some time before signing him from Borussia Monchengladbach for £30million before Euro 2016.
"We tried in December last year," said Wenger of the player who left Basel for Germany at the age of 19. "He already has experience abroad and that is reassuring. He was captain at a young age at Monchengladbach, which is not a small club, so he is a leader."
More importantly, 6ft 1in Xhaka brings something different to an Arsenal midfield characterised by short-passing short men such as Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey.
Xhaka was paired with Cazorla in central midfield against Watford, while Mesut Ozil returned in a No.10 role and Sanchez played as a false nine, with Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings.
Their clever movement and interplay quickly unpicked Walter Mazzarri's game plan, to the extent that the Watford manager had to switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 shortly after half-time, by which time Arsenal had taken a three-goal lead.
Cazorla's penalty opened the scoring in the ninth minute after Nordin Amrabat's clumsy foul on Sanchez, who then scored his first of the season before crossing for Ozil to head home unmarked on the stroke of half-time.
Mazzarri sent on two of his many new signings, Isaac Success and Roberto Pereyra, and the latter reduced the deficit in the 57th minute as Watford finally put pressure on Arsenal's defence.
The arrival of Mustafi should help shore up the backline and Wenger suggested he was looking at the long term with his acquisitions.
"Mustafi is also 24 and it is important to plan for the future. We lost three midfielders last year, had many injuries and we have some uncertainties about longer-term injuries. If you project a bit, we have players close to 30 and close to 20, but not many at the mid-range of 24, 25, which I think is important."