Granit Xhaka is nothing like the player Arsenal supporters thought he was, or could become, when the club signed him in 2016. The idea then was that he would provide steel in deep midfield, a combination of defensive strength and playmaking from a deep position — something Arsenal haven’t had since the departure of the great Patrick Vieira. It turns out that Xhaka has one skill and one skill only: he can make a good long pass, usually diagonally, when he has plenty of time on the ball. He can’t dribble, he can’t make runs into the box, he can’t shoot except for the occasional long-range blast. On defense he is both slow and positionally unaware, which means that he is always a booking waiting to happen.
But Xhaka is not the problem. The problem is a manager who makes Xhaka perhaps one of the most constant figures in the teams he selects (along with Leno and Auba). Week after week Emery sets Xhaka up for failure and week after week Xhaka experiences precisely what Emery has set him up for.
Torreira can’t make the long passes that Xhaka makes, but in every other respect bar none he is a far superior footballer, and it’s simply stupid to sit him in favor of Xhaka. Maitland-Niles, for all his struggles at fullback, would be better than Xhaka as a holding midfielder. Dani Ceballos could actually make plays from the deep-lying position, though I would prefer to see him farther up the pitch. Emery could pick names out of a hat and do better than he has been doing.
The one trait that we have consistently seen from Emery since he took over Arsenal is this: he makes personnel decisions without reference to what works on the pitch. We started seeing that last year when Arsenal were far more dangerous with Auba and Lacazette on the pitch together, but Emery wants to play a single striker, so they rarely paired up. This year we have seen the team utterly lacking in midfield creativity and playmaking, yet Özil has been completely sidelined and Ceballos plays only occasionally. (I know the problems with Özil, but the team is offensively moribund. Scrappy set-piece goes from your center backs are not a recipe for Premier League success.) Emery is holding desperately to some model of football that he cannot implement nor even articulate. He is stubborn in his commitment to an indescribable will-o-the-wisp.
Every day I check my RSS feed hoping to learn that he’s been sacked. Every day I am disappointed. There’s no reason to give up on this season — Arsenal are a very talented squad, by far the most talented in recent years — but many of the more gifted players are riding the pine. If Emery doesn’t go soon, supporters will need to write off another season. And that simply shouldn’t be necessary.