Why youthful Arsenal will need Granit Xhaka this season

As Ainsley Maitland-Niles came on to join Sambi Lokonga in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield at Burnley, I couldn’t help but wince.

No because I dislike either Ainsley or Sambi or doubt their abilities, rather it was their sheer youth and relative inexperience that took me even closer to the edge of my seat.

When defending a single-goal lead away at Turf Moor, a centre midfield pairing with a combined average age of about 22.5 and just a single full international cap between them does little to improve confidence.

Again, I stress that this isn’t about talent or belief, this is a question of experience and leadership.

On the day, Ainsley and Sambi were excellent and held firm in the face of a pretty stiff examination from Sean Dyche’s orc hordes, just as they did a week earlier against Norwich. However talented the duo are, however, I can’t help feeling that a little more experience would be welcome.

Older heads are not always wiser heads, of course, but the chances of a more senior player having been there, seen it, done it and learned from it are simply greater. That is where Granit Xhaka comes in this season.

I know the decision to retain his services was a controversial one for fans and I understand that. He is a divisive player who has had a turbulent career at Arsenal. He has been as much a hindrance to this team as he has been a help over the years and he has rarely seemed to replicate his international form on the Premier League stage.

When he does offer, however, is leadership. And this is not just me talking, his prominent role in the dressing room has been reflected in the trust placed in him by countless managers, both at home and abroad. Clearly, his is an influential voice.

In a team as youthful and inexperienced as ours, perhaps even a little too inexperienced, Xhaka’s role will be important. He can help stiffen the resolve and glavanise those around him in difficult times. On Saturday, we spend much of the second half on the back foot, making simple mistakes and inviting pressure with more decisions in key areas.

Would Xhaka’s presence on the pitch have improved that? Almost certainly yes. There was no lack of quality on the pitch, it seemed to me a lack of guidance, of leadership, something the Swiss brings to the table.

As highly as all rate our younger players, they have already shown they won’t be able to carry this team all the way through the season, particularly against the bigger teams and those further into their development. Even Bukayo Saka, one of the first names on our team sheet, looked in need of a quiet word or two at Turf Moor as, time and again, he gave the ball away, made a poor pass, or simply ran down a blind alley.

As we go deeper into this season and, indeed, into the future, our young stars will learn, adapt, and be able to draw upon their own resources in tough situations. Until then, they will need help and some of that slack will have to be taken up by the senior players – players like Granit Xhaka.

So while his presence around the team continues to stick in the throat for some, he will offer more than many would given him credit for. If he can avoid succumbing to his own worst impulses, he will have an important role to play this season.

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