Granit Xhaka shining in revised role within Arsenal's new system
It may have been Alexis Sanchez who scored the crucial goals in Arsenal's win over Sunderland, but it was Granit Xhaka who broke open the game with a moment of brilliance. It was his arced ball over the top that found Mesut Ozil in space, enabling the German to square for Alexis to tap home and open the scoring. The Sunderland match was the latest in a series of eye-catching displays from Xhaka, who is finally proving his worth in an Arsenal shirt.
For much of the season, Xhaka has been criticised for failing to live up to his £35 million price tag. Arsenal fans had high hopes for the former Borussia Monchengladbach skipper -- and Arsene Wenger clearly believed in him too when he allowed another left-footed central midfielder, Jack Wilshere, to leave the club on loan.
However, it did not prove to be an easy adaptation for Xhaka. Although he had the physicality required to flourish in the English game, it came paired with an aggression that has been difficult to tame. He also struggled to settle in an Arsenal midfield destabilised by the loss of Santi Cazorla to injury. His talent would occasionally flicker into life, but for the most part he looked an awkward fit for Arsenal and the Premier League.
Criticism of Xhaka across the course of the campaign has been somewhat over the top. He's partly a victim of being misunderstood -- even by his own manager. Speaking back in September, Wenger expressed a desire to deploy Xhaka in a roving midfield role:
"I personally prefer him as a box-to-box player. Because he has the engine, he has the power, he has the long pass. He likes to come deep and distribute the game, but he has the engine to have the impact with his runs."
It's fair to say Xhaka struggled with the adaptation to a more adventurous role. He lacked the mobility to get up and down the pitch in the way Wenger clearly envisaged, and being caught upfield simply exposed the flaws in his tackling technique.
By November, Wenger had rediagnosed the Swiss international as a deep-lying quarterback, telling the club's official website:
"Granit is more a deep playmaker I think than a box-to-box player. He does not get in the final third of the opposition half a lot. He is more a guy who has a fantastic pass to play through the lines."
It was a dramatic turnaround from Wenger, and one that certainly raises questions about Arsenal's scouting process. Ultimately, it was his latter opinion that landed upon Xhaka's true strengths. He is fundamentally a passer, not a runner -- nor even a tackler. Contrary to his image as a burly ball-winner, Xhaka is actually an outstanding playmaker.
That has been particularly evident since Arsenal switched to their new system. Arsenal's shift to a 3-4-3 was largely intended to protect their vulnerable centre-halves, but there have been enormous benefits in midfield too.
Xhaka has shone. With an extra defender covering behind him, Xhaka's defensive shortcomings are sufficiently safeguarded. His partner, Aaron Ramsey, has the legs to do the majority of the ball recovery, although Xhaka's intelligent positioning should not be entirely disregarded.
The crucial thing is the sheer number of runners ahead of him. The sight of Xhaka pinging a diagonal ball out to Nacho Monreal or Hector Bellerin has become an increasingly frequent one at the Emirates Stadium. As a rule, Arsenal's shape enables both wing-backs, the inside forward pairing of Alexis and Ozil and the central striker to be ahead of the ball when Xhaka picks it up from the centre-halves. He has five potential targets at any one time, and his radar seems to be improving with every game. Outrageous passes are now becoming routine.
His ball to Ozil on Tuesday night was as good as they come, lofting the ball over the defence and dropping it onto the German's foot. All season long, Xhaka has been accused of not justifying his fee, but this was the pass of a £35 million player.
There are still question marks over his ability to distribute the ball under pressure. When harried by opponents, Xhaka does not share Cazorla's invaluable ability to dribble neatly away from his pursuers. However, the new formation is helping -- with Arsenal's wing-backs stretching the ball, it's significantly harder to close Xhaka down. Afforded space, he can be highly influential.
It remains to be seen whether Arsenal stick with this formation, but it's clear Xhaka has been an important part of its success. Since Arsenal adopted the new shape against Middlesbrough, he has played every minute of Arsenal's eight games, barring a quarter of an hour against Manchester United when he was substituted due to injury and the final half hour against Tottenham. Xhaka is showing signs he could eventually succeed Cazorla as the heartbeat of their midfield. People might have expected a destroyer, but Arsenal have instead uncovered a crucial creator.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.