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Arsenal could hit the jackpot with Denis Zakaria

By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)

As my esteemed colleague Max Mishcon mentioned yesterday, Arsenal's transfer history can be... a bit of a shitshow. Like a Yakov Smirnoff, opening for the Spin Doctors, at the Iowa State Fair shitshow. For those of you who have any clue what I'm on about, congratulations! You've either watched the hit film Deadpool in the last 24 hours, or you're about as red-blooded American as it gets. For those who don't, it's for the best.

Historically, Arsenal tend to fall rather flat in the transfer market, especially when it comes to long-term links. Remember when Dayot Upamecano was the future of the club? That went well. And when we almost had Houssem Aouar two years running, and now will likely avoid him for a third? I remember that too. Oh, and, not to mention, the time we put 18 months of interest into Dominik Szoboszlai, only to lose him because we couldn't stump up £25m at the right time. And if you look back further than the last 12 months, you'll find even more!

Nor can it be said that they sign players who are particularly under-the-radar, but who are also ready for a full season of first-team football. We typically augment our supposed "superstars"—read Auba, Laca, Pepe—who we often overpay for, with decent talent that doesn't quite have it all together—read Mustafi, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan, Cedric, Willian—who we also overpay for. Combine that with the fact that we have bought a combined £400m worth of players in the last five years, while only selling £188m in that same period, and we're hemorrhaging money faster than you can say Kroenke. And we manage to do so by winning transfer races where the only club interested is, you guessed it, us.

I bring all of this up because Denis Zakaria, recently linked to Arsenal, fits the long-term target bill, but refutes almost every bogus clause that tend to accompany that tag. Available for around £35m last season, his price turned the Gunners away due to their COVID-stricken war chest, but a long-term injury has dropped the asking fee to £27m, which effectively amounts to highway robbery, for a player of Zakaria's quailty. Now the Gunners are asking again, with Edu reportedly having been given the green light to sign the player if they can agree terms.

Reported by both the Mirror and 90min (not the most reliable sources, but we move), Borussia Monchengladbach Sporting Director Max Eberl has received a transfer request from the player, with Zakaria looking to make a move to another competition, his sights reportedly set on the Prem. Eberl had this to say about Zakaria's contract situation.

With Denis (Zakaria), we have been trying to extend his contract since October. Denis and his management told us pretty clearly that they would prefer a transfer this summer.

And with only a year left on his current Gladbach deal, and negotiations stalling for nine months now, there will be no better opportunity to sign the Swiss international. But why should we sign him?

And despite his lack of playing time, limited by the aformentioned knee injury that kept him sidelined for almost ten months, Zakaria has worked his way back into fighting fitness, aided by a good number of minutes in the Euro 2020 tournament, where his home nation of Switzerland advanced further than anybody could have expected. His first-team quality is undeniable, and he plays best directly at the heart of the midfield, where we need the most support.

Before his injury in March of 2020, Zakaria was a key cog in the Marco Rose system that took Borussia Monchengladbach to a stellar fourth-place finish in the league that season, and to their first UCL appearance in a number of years. Operating as a lone No. 6, flanked by two No. 8's, or in a pair in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3, the then-22-year-old made a name for himself soaking up pressure and launching counter attacks. He even deployed at centre-back in a three on a number of occasions, including one fateful match where he was given the tactical instruction to man-mark Timo Werner, who was a force for RB Leipzig at the time. Over 90 minutes, Werner only managed one shot, and it was blocked by Zakaria.

Arsenal need to find a Granit Xhaka replacement, but even more than that, they need to find a long-term partner for Thomas Partey. In order to get the best of the Ghanaian, they must find a player who can anchor the midfield to give Partey the freedom to transition and push high up the pitch, which will necessitate a good measure of defensive cover, but who can also cover for him in possession and create in his own right. I would argue that Zakaria is the perfect player for that role.

Unlike the widely-admired Yves Bissouma, who has more flair and panache than your average holding midfielder, Zakaria is a bulldozer. Standing at a commanding 6'3," he combines physical power with an excellent tactical nous and positional sense, which he uses to lodge himself in the way of incoming attacks, before using deft touches and body positioning to work through the first line of the counter press, at which point he'll either recycle the ball or distribute to a creator—he averages 1.47 successful dribbles per 90, and completes over 73% of those he attempts, dribbling past an average of 1.53 players in the process, no mean feat for a holding midfielder.

A majority of his touches occur within his own 18-year-box, or in the defensive third, and while this speaks to Gladbach's counter-attacking tactics, it would also perfectly augment and support Thomas Partey's role in the team as we look to grant the Ghanaian more wiggle room to create chances and involve himself in possession. Zakaria also has the intensity to play in a more high-octane pressing system than that employed by Die Fohlen, and was excellent stepping in for Granit Xhaka in a more advanced role in the Switzerland midfield.

Despite his size, he's reflexively quick, and rapid over any distance. His role at Gladbach is to cover pockets of space behind the attackers, reclaim and recycle possession, drop between the centre-backs in defensive situations, and screen the back-four in a low-lying block out of possession. His 0.58 blocked shots and 1.84 interceptions per 90 tell that tale, and he's extraordinarily hard to dribble past—he tackles 44% of those who try, and it only happens 0.79 times per 90, two statistics above the 90th percentile among central midfielders.

And on the ball, he completes 89% of his passes per 90, including 93% of his short passes—between 5 and 15 yards—and 94% of his mid-range passes—between 15 and 30 yards. When he aims for a target, he typically hits it, averaging among the lowest rates of passes to offside players, passes out of bounds, and passes intercepted in Europe—0.05, 0.37, and 0.79 respectively per 90. Best of all, he's a safe option on the ball, but one who constantly looks to progress, rather than the sideways-backwards game we often play with Mohamed Elneny and Lucas Torreira.

Arsenal need midfield investment, and despite the recent addition of Albert Sambi Lokonga, they need to acquire at least two players with first-team quality, and even more if possible. Partey can't do it all on his own. Zakaria is an under-the-radar player who has quietly racked up some of the best transitional and defensive numbers in Europe, and, at 24, already has more European experience than most of our current squad. He fits the age profile, and the tactical profile, and has the physical, mental, technical, and tactical abilities to adapt quickly to the Premier League. All of that for £27 million, down from nearly £40m the last time Arsenal came calling? Where do I sign? Or better yet, where does he?

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