Granit Xhaka is one in a long line of Arsenal midfielders to be compared to one of his predecessors in north London, and such comparisons can often leave a player with big shoes to fill.
While injuries cost Abou Diaby the chance to have a real crack at his ‘Next Patrick Vieira’ tag, it was one of Vieira’s compatriots who invited Xhaka comparisons from none other than Arsene Wenger.
“He is a guy who plays naturally behind the ball, he is a bit similar to (Emmanuel) Petit in the way he plays football,” Wenger said back in 2016, when Xhaka’s Arsenal career was still in its infancy.
“He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available with the centre-backs.”
While Xhaka’s Arsenal career hasn’t brought the high points enjoyed by Petit at Highbury, the Swiss midfielder still has time on his side. And now, with the arrival of Thomas Partey, he may have the ideal midfield set-up to help Wenger’s prediction come true.
In the last three major international tournaments, Xhaka has settled well into a Swiss side with at least one player in a role not far from that played by Partey.
He has found himself in a three-man midfield with some combination of Valon Behrami, Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili, ensuring at least one tackler to ensure Xhaka is less exposed and freer to use the ball with the luxury of time.
Partey won more tackles last season (45, per StatsBomb/FBRef.com) than any Arsenal player, with Dani Ceballos’ 28 the most from any of Xhaka’s team-mates, while his 28 interceptions also represented a higher tally than any member of Mikel Arteta’s squad.
While things are closer when you consider the return per 90 minutes, with Arteta and his predecessor Unai Emery struggling to find a settled midfield two or three, this is kind of the point: Arsenal are adding a midfielder who has been signed specifically to be a constant in the middle of the park, regardless of whether the Gunners play two or three centre-backs behind him.
This, at least in theory, gives Xhaka the added benefit of working with a consistent partner and developing a relationship which benefits them both. Surely it’s no coincidence that his international consistency came as part of a squad which itself carried a level of continuity and in which players knew their roles both individually and in the context of the whole.
For a great deal of last season, and parts of the other campaigns during Xhaka’s time at Arsenal, a series of managers have often looked on the verge of finding a system which perfectly suits the midfielder without ever quite getting there for an extended period of time.
This situation is a complex one. Xhaka may not be a player decisive enough to justify a system being built around him, or build specifically to account for his whims, and yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest a set-up which gets the best out of the former club captain is one which – whether by design or by coincidence – also works to the benefit of the team as a whole.
Petit’s success at Arsenal came as part of a system which suited him, but it went beyond the presence of Patrick Vieira by his side: Vieira’s ability and productivity provided wider benefits to Wenger’s Arsenal, from top to bottom, and Petit was able to thrive as a consequence of balance as much as individuality.
The benefit brought by Partey is a structural one: it gives Arteta’s Arsenal the freedom to avoid the unbalanced set-up which has forced overcompensation and left the Gunners with a side which is merely ‘good, given the circumstances’. In helping bring about a situation which allows Xhaka the opportunity to deliver on the Petit comparison, that caveat could soon disappear.