A destroyer or a playmaker? What type of Central Midfielder should Arsenal be targeting this Summer?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
With Arsenal on the verge of signing midfield prospect Albert Sambi Lokonga, and Granit Xhaka on the verge of completing a move to Roma, it would appear the club are finally launching a full scale renovation on an area of their squad that has been an issue for several years.
Last season, Arsenal struggled for consistency in central midfield and this cost them in several games. Whether it was the Thomas Partey - Xhaka pivot that often failed to get the best out of the Ghanian as he was left bypassed in the build-up as Xhaka dropped in to the defence, or it was the ponderous pivot of Dani Ceballos - Mo Elneny that lacked any real thrust or control, there were always problems. An inability to progress the ball up the pitch through midfield and failing to protect the back four were the main issues- the balance of creativity in possession and defensive control was never really struck.
Despite improvements in the latter stages of the season, as Partey and Xhaka began to form something of a functional partnership, with the Swiss set to leave the club, this is the perfect opportunity to find a settled double pivot that finds that balance and provides a foundation for the rest of the team to build around.
Dani Ceballos has returned to Madrid and will not come back, Matteo Guendouzi is out the door and most likely on his way to Marseille, whilst Lucas Torreira is currently in talks with Lazio. Mohamed Elneny is likely to remain nothing more than a squad player. Arsenal need numbers in this area, desperately.
Lokonga is a start. The 21-year-old prodigy will fill the ball progression void left by Granit Xhaka, whilst also possessing significantly more mobility than our much maligned former captain, which naturally gives him marginally better defensive output. However, at his tender age, it's unlikely he'll be an undisputed mainstay in our starting 11 next season, and the club do appear to recognise this. The likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Yves Bissouma, Ruben Neves and Renato Sanchez have been linked with moves to North London of late. It's clear- Lokonga is not where Arsenal are stopping.
The profile of player Arsenal have been linked with varies drastically from out and out ball winner, to high energy box to box, to basically a Granit Xhaka regen. Despite reports circulating that Arsenal are looking for someone on the more creative end of the spectrum to play alongside Partey, the players Mikel Arteta and Edu are rumoured to be targeting don't all fit that description.
What should Arsenal be looking for in Partey's pivot partner? What sort of attributes and skillset should they possess?
Firstly, we need to look at what Xhaka brought to the team. The Swiss' main asset that made him so essential to Arsenal last season and in previous campaigns was his ability to progress the ball. His expansive range of passing was missed in his absence, and these games often saw us struggle to get the ball to our attacking players frequently and quickly enough.
Xhaka made 8.48 passes into the final third per 90 last season, putting him in the 97th percentile for this metric for midfielders in Europe's top five leagues. He also made 6.72 progressive passes per 90, placing him in 93rd percentile. Replacing this is absolutely imperative.
The Roma bound man was also just generally very secure in possession. Despite not possessing the most agile of bodies, his technical security allowed him to complete 90% of his passes (89th percentile). Finding someone that keeps it ticking, dictates the tempo and rarely losses is possession is another element Arsenal cannot afford to lose in their central midfield.
As I wrote in February, when moving on from Granit Xhaka this summer, it's important we don't replace him, but upgrade on him. Identifying a player who can bring these aforementioned qualities plus a whole lot more is what Arsenal must do in this transfer window.
One area in which Xhaka failed to contribute , and just isn't really a part of his game, is in the final third. A consequence of his limited physical abilities, and just the role he fulfils in our system, meant his direct contributions to goals and chance creation were very minimal.
A single goal and two assists in all competitions demonstrates this. 0.05 expected assists per 90 ranks him in the 30th percentile for midfielders, whilst 1.44 shot-creating actions per 90 also sees him placed in the 30th percentile. While this certainly isn't Xhaka's responsibility, acquiring a midfielder who could contribute a little more in this area would be a huge addition to a midfield cohort at the club that fails to do this to any meaningful extent.
Xhaka also had his limitations defensively. 2.71 tackles and interceptions per 90 placed him in the 23rd percentile. In other words, 77% of midfielders throughout Europe's top five leagues had better defensive output than the Euro 2020 quarter-finalist. Of course, these numbers aren't possession adjusted so are not quite as bad they appear, but you'd still expect more. The need for better defensive productivity in a new signing is real.
From this reading, we sort of need a midfielder who can do literally everything. Unfortunately, there are very few out there who will bring ball progression, excellent attacking output and excellent defensive output, particularly in Arsenal's ideal price range. So, selecting the attributes we feel are most pressing is probably the more realistic approach to this specific piece of recruitment.
A good way of selecting what you deem is a priority in a new midfielder is looking at what would compliment Thomas Partey well and the system as a whole. Partey excels in progressing the ball (9.17 final third entries- passes and carries- per 90), as well posting pretty good defensive acumen (4.45 tackles and interceptions per 90- 81st percentile).
With this statistical profile of Partey, you can understand why the club would be focusing on more of a creative option. Partey safeguards the defence well, whilst also being superb in possession. Adding someone creative alongside him who will also progress the ball well but additionally pop up in more advanced areas and contribute directly to goals would formulate a nice, balanced partnership. With Arsenal sitting 9th in the expected goals for table but 5th in the expected goals against, it makes sense to strengthen your offensive side.
Essentially, it would appear Renato Sanches would be a better fit than Yves Bissouma. Sanches would bring Xhaka's progression abilities in abundance, but contribute much more in the final third. Despite the Lille man's non-existent defending, Arsenal got away with one of their double pivot members not contributing greatly defensively last season, still maintaining a strong defence.
However, there is a case to be made that a player who can be a ball-winner is equally as important. In the big games, Partey may not be capable of solely dealing with all the defensive responsibility. Furthermore, the Ghana international may not be fit for the entire season- as we saw in 20/21- and having very little natural, like for like, cover is an issue.
To caveat this again, as we saw with Lucas Torreira, having an out and out ball winner with very limited passing ability is not an option in Mikel Arteta's highly possession based team. We still need a blend of qualities.
The solution may well be the first conclusion I came to. A creative player who can play in a pivot or a three, with a number ten in front of them, with Lokonga as the more defensive alternative in big games or to cover for Partey, feels like the sensible way to approach this.
However, it's certainly not a definitive answer to this question, and this is what Arteta and Edu are going to have to decide upon very soon. If they get it wrong, it could well cost them their jobs. If they get it right, Arsenal may well have a settled midfield for years to come.