How do Arsenal Cope Without Granit Xhaka?
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
Whenever Arsenal announce they have a fully fit squad, as was the case prior to Sunday’s north London derby, there is a tangible sense of fate being tempted. As one could so easily have predicted, one week later, Mikel Arteta no longer has his full squad available for selection.
After a collision with Lucas Moura late in the second half of Sunday’s victory which appeared insignificant at the time, Granit Xhaka severely injured one of his medial knee ligaments. As such, the experienced Swiss has been sidelined for around 3 months.
Xhaka has divided opinion as an Arsenal player since his signing was prioritised over a pursuit of then-Leicester midfielder N’Golo Kante in 2016. His time in north London has been tumultuous, characterised by numerous hot-headed moments. However, when his head has been fully screwed on, Xhaka has established himself as a hugely important player at Arsenal.
This was to the extent that Arsenal pretty much couldn’t win football matches without Granit Xhaka in the team during Mikel Arteta’s first few months in charge. He plays a key role thanks to his imposing stature in the engine room as well as his ability to crucially progress the ball down the left flank to some of Arteta’s key creators in Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe.
In more recent times, Arteta has clearly been working on templates for success which don’t include Granit Xhaka. The prime example being Arsenal’s set-up against Burnley a fortnight ago. Thomas Partey started at the base of a midfield three with Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard either side of him. Xhaka wouldn’t be suited to any of these midfield roles.
However, as evidenced by Arsenal’s first-half demolition of Spurs last weekend, Xhaka is a key component of Mikel Arteta’s best XI. Not many sides in world football can say they have a better double-pivot than that of Partey and Xhaka alongside each other. The question is, how do Arsenal cope without Xhaka?
One option is of course a more permanent transition to a 4-3-3. In this system, Martin Ødegaard plays more of a Xhaka-esque role in the engine room with Emile Smith Rowe given license to roam in the right half-space. Watching this midfield trio was interesting at Burnley, but there was certainly room for improvement.
While Ødegaard thrived in the slightly more defensive role of operating as a deep playmaker alongside Partey, Smith Rowe struggled. The talented 21-year-old appears better suited to operating in the left-half-space rather than the right one which he was instilled in within the 4-3-3 system at Burnley. As the NLD victory established, Arsenal are a better team when Smith Rowe is at his best, he must be played in his best position.
That’s not to say the 4-3-3 concept should be discarded. Smith Rowe would doubtlessly improve in that area of the pitch if he were given time to develop there. Nonetheless, it would likely be preferable to kick the 4-3-3 can down the road and focus on improving it in training if possible.
If Arsenal’s scintillating victory over Tottenham is anything to go by, trying to replicate the 4-2-3-1 which was so effective on the day would probably be the best way forward at the time being. Without Xhaka, it’ll be difficult, but that’s why you have back-up options.
The onus will be on any one of Albert Sambi Lokonga, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Mohamed Elneny or perhaps even academy starlet Charlie Patino to stake a claim over that role next to Partey. Of course, all 4 players possess very different profiles, but their job is of course to cover when required.
Lokonga will be the primary candidate to take Xhaka’s spot. As Arsenal Technical Director Edu stated in his interview a few weeks ago, Sambi was brought in to be the third man in midfield behind Xhaka and Partey. His displays in an Arsenal shirt since his Summer arrival have elucidated his impressive passing range and tidy close control. Through starting him against Brentford and Chelsea, Arteta has already shown he trusts the youngsters abilities.
With his Arsenal career still very young, it is already time for Lokonga to step up and replace Granit Xhaka. One senses a crucial period in the Belgian’s footballing education is upon us.
So, two players will play key roles if Arsenal are to successfully negate the problem posed by Granit Xhaka’s absence. Either Martin Ødegaard will have to adopt something of a quasi-Xhaka role in a 4-3-3, or, Albert Sambi Lokonga will simply stride into the space vacated by Xhaka.
Arteta has options. Thomas Partey’s presence ease concerns at the base of midfield for the Spanish manager. Nonetheless, if Partey were to get injured, Arsenal would indeed be in big trouble. With regard to their midfielding medical record over the next three months, Arsenal need all the luck they can get.