Ever since Patrick Vieira's departure for Juventus in 2005, the Arsenal midfield has lacked a certain combativeness, an edge. There has never been a shortage of technical mastery or creative flair, but there was always a lingering sense that gaping holes would appear when the chips were down.
Throughout his pomp, Arsenal's towering French captain would be the thumping heart of the Gunners' midfield: graceful, athletic and easy on the eye. But also carrying the fight, teeth bared and flag waving.
Without truly replacing the 1998 World Cup winner, it is perhaps no surprise that Arsène Wenger's side have been unable to mount a sustained title challenge since Vieira left for Serie A, their soft core too often suspect under pressure.
But last summer, finally, the former Monaco and Grampus Eight coach dipped into his pocket to remedy the issue, splashing £35million – remember when that used to feel like a lot of money? – on Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, a tough-tackling, uncompromising central midfielder with a sketchy disciplinary record.
Xhaka's Lack Of Impact
Xhaka came to the Premier League with more than just a track record of racking up cards – he was sent off three times in his final Bundesliga season. He had been a key player for Borussia Mönchengladbach, helping Die Fohlen, first under Lucien Favre then André Schubert, become a force in the German top flight and Champions League qualifiers.
Gladbach's drastic downturn in form after his departure is perhaps evidence of the gaping hole Xhaka left behind.
But the 24-year-old struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League initially, not necessarily playing badly per se, but seeming to add little to the Gunners' midfield – a tidy enough operator, but not the kind of difference maker fans had hoped he'd be.
By the end of January, Xhaka had accumulated more red cards (two) than goals (one). Arsenal's stuttering form was a concern and many supporters directed their ire at Wenger, feeling the French tactician had outstayed his welcome in north London, but the Swiss midfielder, too, saw his share of criticism.
New System, New Player
However, as the campaign began to reach its crescendo, Xhaka found his feet. A switch in formation, from Arsenal‘s customary 4-2-3-1 to the en vogue 3-4-3 suited the former Basel man, who had played in a similar system with Gladbach.
With wing-backs stretching the pitch wide and the freedom of no No.10 ahead and no defensive midfielder behind, Xhaka found that he had space to work in. His wonderful range of passing, vision and intelligence came to the fore, and his combative spirit was channeled to become an asset.
Arsenal had ten games remaining when Wenger made his tactical change after a 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace. They won nine, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification, pipped to fourth spot by Liverpool, but securing a record 13th FA Cup, seeing off champions Chelsea at Wembley.
Against Antonio Conte's Blues, Xhaka was imperious and omnipresent. Everything Arsenal did well had his fingerprints on it and every Chelsea player he encountered came off second best.
The 53-cap Swiss international saw more of the ball then any other player on the Wembley pitch, making 73 passes and completing 87.7 per cent of them. He also made one interception and led the Gunners in tackles with three. It was the kind of all-round, all-action display that he had built a reputation on in Germany, only now there was a newfound composure to his game, an added degree of responsibility.
The Gunners are set to spend big this summer, with left-back Sead Kolašinac already secured and French striker Alexandre Lacazette set to join in a club-record £50million deal from Lyon.
The spending won't stop there either, with Wenger ready to invest in his squad to ensure that finishing outside the top four doesn't become a habit. Monaco's teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé and Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez have both reportedly been identified as Arsenal targets.
But of all the transfer talk, no-one is questioning Xhaka's position. After a difficult adjustment period he has fully acclimatised to the demands of the Premier League and the expectations inside the Emirates Stadium.
A striker is a necessity, a new winger will become so too if Manchester City target Alexis Sánchez cannot be convinced to stay, but Arsenal's soft centre is no longer an issue.
In Xhaka, the Gunners have struck upon the ideal blend of steel and silk, of grit and glamour. From an Arsenal point of view, things are already looking up ahead of the 2017/18 season and Xhaka is ready to take centre stage.