The Either/Or Conundrum
Mistakes happen everywhere and football is no exception. No big drama, we chin up and move on.
What makes it particularly difficult to process is its repetition, over time, as the concept of learning through experience doesn’t apply.
We can accept the odd mistake, the brain fart that bears unpleasant consequences but it’s difficult to accept the regular mistake, the not-so-surprising-anymore mistake that happened in the past, happens in the present and is very likely to happen again in the future.
Granit Xhaka has made yet another costly mistake and, as much as he nobly holds his hand high and takes the blame, I’m not sure we can be okay with this anymore.
It is not a glitch, it is a pattern.
It must be said that the Swiss international and former captain was playing really well prior to his error against Burnley and was one of the driving forces behind our short renaissance before the end of the year, but he fell into one of his bad habits.
In fact, Granit Xhaka usually plays very well in-between two big mistakes and this time it wasn’t different: he got himself sent off quite stupidly in the reverse fixture, served his 3-games ban, came back against Chelsea and ran the show until the very next mistake, on Saturday.
There is a pattern that we seem to be reluctantly accepting – not only with Granit Xhaka, but also with several other midfielders, as if it was okay to have players who have (at least) one flagrant flaw but could do one thing very well – so it was worth sticking with them.
Granit Xhaka has a terrific passing range but can’t run.
Dani Ceballos is highly press-resistant but cannot drive forward.
Mohamed Elneny can run three marathons per day but can’t pass between the lines.
Same thing happened in the past with the likes of Francis Coquelin, Mathieu Flamini, Lucas Torreira, Abou Diaby, Denílson, Mesut Özil and so on. There were notable exceptions, like Santi Cazorla, Césc Fàbregas and Patrick Vieira, but overall we accepted mediocrity to a very large extent during the last five years or so.
Mesut Özil was probably the epitome of such player: he was grand when “switched on” but could not fulfill the basic off the ball requirements. In my opinion, Mikel Arteta saw in Mesut Özil the man who could do what Emile Smith Rowe is doing today but the German was unwilling or unable to ensure a minimum effort, defensively speaking. Emile Smith Rowe isn’t exactly jumping into tackles, contesting aerial balls or going shoulders to shoulders with his opponents, he’s simply cutting passing lanes through intelligent movement, following the high press and tracking back when needed.
That’s really basic stuff for any footballer, it’s shocking that Mesut Özil couldn’t or wouldn’t oblige.
To some extent, it looked like we could only have one-dimensional midfielders who could do EITHER this OR that – not both; it’s like being in a shop and comparing two products, then choosing the least worst one:
“This TV doesn’t have a remote but has a top-notch sound system”
”This one has a fantastic resolution but only works on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays”
“Which one would you like, sir?”
To think that we accepted such a low bar for so much time is quite depressing but I think too many of us didn’t realize or couldn’t remember how different a true elite midfielder is, compared to what we had and what we have today.
Although not fully fit and still adjusting to the league and the team, Thomas Partey has already shown that he can defend AND drive the ball forward; he can impose his physicality AND play in tight spaces.
It’s not rocket science, really, but it requires smart scouting, resolute decision making and continuity in the day-to-day work.
We can have better players, we deserve better players.
Most importantly, we need better players if we really want this project to go somewhere or it will be rinse and repeat every other season.
Thirty-something Italian, currently in Switzerland. Gooner since mid-ninties, when the Gunners defeated my hometown team, in Copenhagen. Twelve years ago I started my own blog (www.clockenditalia.com) after after some experiences with Italian websites and football magazines. Debate, don’t insult or you’re out.