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Using my Crystal Ball to Divine The Ultimate Granit Xhaka Replacement

By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)

My apologies, the title was a lie. I’m using FBREF, so if you’re not looking for in-depth statistical analysis, you’ve come to the wrong place. But that’s beside the point. I’ve spent years defending Granit Xhaka, especially through the tough times where it felt the whole fanbase was against him, and only now that he’s found his groove, I’d like to cut him loose. Aren’t I the asshole?

No, not really. I’d just like to see this team improve. Xhaka is a talented football player, it’s true, but he’s not the future of this side. If Arsenal are to achieve the heights Arteta dreams of in every press conference, we must upgrade, and the Swiss may be the first to go. However, he’ll certainly take some replacing.

It’s obvious to even the casual viewer that Xhaka is central to Arsenal’s buildup play. He gets by far the greatest volume of touches at the base of the midfield, and is relied on across all three phases of play to be a cool and collected head, something he can’t always manage. But even more than that, he’s an integral part of this Mikel Arteta side tactically, and a leader and potential (not to mention former) captain, both on the pitch and in the dressing room. He’ll take replacing, without a doubt.

What do we need his replacement to carry over?

Xhaka’s skill in possession is the biggest one. Whoever replaces Xhaka must be cool on the ball, with an above-average passing range, and especially must possess the ability to break the lines with passes, especially around the edge of the box. Xhaka’s slide-rule passes and disguised balls have been a great benefactor for us this season, and we’d do well to keep more of them in the side.

The aforementioned leadership aside, we also need a player who’s brave, tenacious, and above all, physical. Have you noticed the Swiss looking a bit leggy recently? That’s because he’s been asked to play over 20 games straight, completing the full 90 minutes in all but the last, oftentimes with at least two fixtures in a seven-day span. That’s unsustainable, as we’ve seen, but his replacement must also be similarly durable, able to soldier on through the toughest of situations and fixture lists. This will come especially key in leading the press and communicating with his teammates, another must-have.

And while Xhaka’s size is not a necessity, the player must be able to partner Thomas Partey’s rather unique skill set as well as Xhaka does. He must possess the positional nous to know when to make forward runs, and must have the ability to create space for others when necessary, to allow the Ghanaian to facilitate the midfield at his press-breaking best. And finally, the player must possess some measure of defensive skill, in order to fulfill those duties.

And before you get mad and swat me on the arm for giving you an almighty headache of a shopping list, just wait. It’s not over yet.

What must his replacement be able to do that Xhaka cannot?

The first answer is: movement. Mobility is such a key facet of any central midfielder in the modern game, and especially in an Arsenal midfield that is sorely lacking in just that, we could use an injection of pace, hard-stop. But more than that, whoever replaces him must bring a cool head, fast feet, and press-resistance to the left side of our midfield.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the player has to be left-footed, but they must be at least adequate at passing with their weaker foot. Somebody like PSG’s Leandro Paredes, who fits the tactical profile somewhat, plays over 93% of his passes with his right foot. Not good enough. They must also be able to dribble at least somewhat, and preferably in a manner that progresses the ball. rather than gift-wrapping possession to the opponent. Which also means no dawdling on the ball, something Xhaka also consistently falls victim too.

So. A progressive passer, who can also lead a team, both vocally and in the press, is tactically and positionally aware, intelligent and swift in his decision making and precise in his distribution, who can run for days without need for food or water, who can lift up the moon and throw it at the sun, who… well, ignoring those last two bits, somebody who’s as durable as iron, yet flexible enough to cover for KT’s bombarding runs. Sorry. Got a bit carried away there. It really does seem an impossible ask, doesn’t it. And with that, let’s get cracking.

The Intriguing Option - Cheick Doucouré

For those of you who have never heard of this kid, that’s alright. I hadn’t until about three days ago. I mean, I imagine most of you don’t watch Metz on a regular basis, despite the fact that they sit in fifth place in Ligue 1, on the back of a promotion. I certainly don’t. But trust me when I tell you, he might just be the real deal.

When I first found his profile on FBREF, his “similar players” list caught my attention. Declan Rice, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, and Thiago Alcantara all make appearances, which makes about as much sense as checking the fridge for some food, knowing full well you did it five minutes ago, and there’s still nothing there you want. We all do it. I read on.

Over 26 appearances from Metz’s 30 games, he’s started 23, and played the full 90 in all but one. That’s not too bad, especially considering he hasn’t been injured all season—he missed two games due to yellow-card suspensions, which occur after fewer cards in Ligue 1, and has failed to make an appearance off the bench twice. Durability isn’t much of an issue for the Malian midfielder.

His real skill comes in ball-progression, both with the ball at his feet and across the turf. While his 89% pass completion rate this season isn’t mind-blowing, he also attempts just under 8 long balls per game, succeeding 85% of the time, which is in the 97th percentile in Europe’s top-five leagues. For reference, that’s the benchmark whenever I talk about percentile in this article.

He averages 0.27 shot-creating actions per dribble, and 0.31 goal-creating actions per pass, which both rank at 96th and 89th percentile respectively. And he attempts 4.88 progressive passes and 5.94 progressive dribbles per game. Translation? The kid can use his feet, and use them damn well. He may not get the most touches, but he sure as hell makes them count.

And his best attributes arguably fall defensively, which we could certainly use. He completes 4.83 tackles and interceptions per 90, split evenly between the defensive and middle thirds. He also pressures approximately 16.5 times per 90, with a 34% success rate, which puts him at 85th percentile. Not bad for a 21-year-old Malian kid who’s currently experiencing his first taste of top-flight football. And despite his relatively average height of 5’10”, he wins 61% of his aerials, losing less than one per match. Decent.

Overall, Doucouré presents as a mobile No. 6 who has a talent for breaking the press and progressing the ball, and who is adept at finding teammates in key areas. Though his xG and xA are relatively low, he might just be the right man to free up Thomas Partey, especially assuming he gets time to study tactics under Arteta, and potentially learn about defending in England from the likes of Lucas Torreira, if our Uruguayan bulldog returns to the Emirates. At 21, he’s one for the future, but I wouldn’t say no.

The Wonderkid - Ryan Gravenberch

Shoutout my spotlight on the Extra Cannon Podcast; this kid is the real deal. He’s lighting up the Eredivisie this season with none other than perennial Dutch champions Ajax. A fresh-faced 18, Gravenberch may seem young and inexperienced, but don’t let him fool you. He already has 3 goals and 5 assists on the season, including one strike that rippled the back of the net in the UCL, against Midtjylland in all fairness.

Like Doucouré, he’s a master of the progressive pass and dribble, averaging 6.21 and 6.32 per 90, respectively. Like Doucouré, he’s a talented reader of the game, with a whopping 2.37 interceptions per 90 (that’s 99th percentile), and a total of 5.08 tackles and interceptions per 90 (94th percentile). And like Doucourê, he creates a fair number of shots and goals, with 0.23 shots created per dribble (94th percentile) and 0.23 goals created per pass. Pretty nifty numbers, but that’s where the comparison stops.

While Doucouré is a mobile No. 6, Gravenberch presents as a roving No. 8, capable of just about anything. He’s a goal threat, averaging a goal for every two shots he puts on frame, and with an xG +/- of 2.35, he’s a constant creative tool. And for what’s more, Ajax score nearly a goal-per-90 fewer when Gravenberch doesn’t play. Telling.

His most Xhaka-like trait, other than the fact he prefers to play on the left-center of midfield, is his ability to create in and around the box. Preferring to roam around the edge of the area, he plays 1.24 passes and 0.23 crosses into the area per 90, both of which rack up at 88th percentile. His dribbling ability is mammoth, completing a staggering 2.71 carries into the final third per 90 (95th percentile), 0.45 carries into the penalty area per 90 (92nd percentile) and completing a rather mind-blowing 2.94 dribbles per match, beating 1.81 players every game. Ludicrous.

And the only thing that can better that is his pressing acumen. He tackles 1.02 dribbler per 90, and tackles a monumental 52.9% of the dribblers who attempt to get past him, which is 99th percentile. He also gets dribbled past 0.9 times per match, which puts him at 90th percentile. And finally, he makes 0.45 tackles in the attacking third per 90, meaning he likes to press high and he’s damn good at it. That’s nearly irreplicable. He’s also a fantastic set-piece taker, as if it couldn’t get any better.

To watch Gravenberch play, you’d swear blind that his feet don’t touch the ground, and there’s no other way to put it. Despite standing a towering 6’3,” he’s seriously quick off the mark, but he just glides everywhere. However, he’s not without his steely side. I’d compare him to a younger Thiago Alcantara, with a bit more defensive nous and bite. His ball-striking technique is stunning, and when he hits something, it stays hit.

The young Dutchman is hot property on the market right now, with nearly every big club in the world touted as a potential destination. He’d cost a pretty penny, no doubt, but two years under Arteta could just mold him into a generational Premier League midfielder. Of course, his statistics are inflated by the lack of depth in the Eredivisie, but even within one or two standard deviations, he’s a monster.

He doesn’t quite have the leadership qualities desired yet—he’s 18, that’s not a shock—and he does have a bit of a reputation for being a diva, but he has the talent to prove it, and he checks nearly every other box. He could be an excellent addition to this team, and one who could potentially serve us for a decade or longer. So do yourselves a favor and watch Ajax in these upcoming Europe League rounds. You won’t regret it.

The Direct Upgrade - Manuel Locatelli

Alright class, raise your hands if you’ve heard of Manuel Locatelli? Nobody? I’m not surprised. For those of you who can picture his face, it’s probably scruffy, and galavanting around in AC Milan’s vertical stripes. Well sorry to break it to you kiddos, he’s moved on to greener pastures. He’s not dead, he’s just tearing it up for Sassuolo, further down the Serie A table. His beard, for those who were curious, is as scruffy as ever.

His first two season in the limelight came between ages 18-19, when he played two very successful seasons for the Rossoneri, featuring in 20+ games in both, but when the San Siro outfit decided to overhaul the squad, Locatelli was scrapped, and shipped down the E35 to Sassuolo, where he’s come back into scintillating form, playing a career high 33 matches last season. With 25 games to his name already this season, he’s set to break that benchmark again.

Locatelli has a profile very similar to Xhaka. He’s tall, rangy, and unfortunately not as mobile as I would like; that’s why his title is the “Direct Upgrade.” He is significantly more press-resistant, though, and has good foot skills in tight spaces, as well as the guile to pass his way out of most sticky situations, thankfully with both feet.

And the comparison abounds in his passing numbers. Locatelli ranks above the 90th percentile in passes completed, passes attempted, passing distance, progressive passing distance, short, medium, and long passes attempted and completed, passes into the final third (8.21 per 90), and progressive passes per 90 (7.07) Those are ludicrous numbers, and we’re just getting started.

Another excellent set-piece taker, Locatelli is best-known for his switches of play, attempting 2.64 per 90, and his ability to play the ball low to the ground, with near-perfect weight. The Italian maestro attempts passes with both feet, despite being right-foot dominant, and is more often successful than not. He also prefers to play off the left side of the midfield, just like our divisive Swiss.

While his defensive acumen isn’t as prevalent to his tactical style, he makes a respectable 3.95 tackles and interceptions per 90, which, combined with 2.02 clearances and 0.43 blocked shots, showcases his ability to plug gaps and get rid of the ball without hesitation. Combine that with the fact he tackles 40% of the dribblers who try to get past him, and makes a significant number of tackles throughout all three phases of play, and you’ve got a decent defender, though it’s not his first priority.

Locatelli averages 2.76 shot-creating actions per 90, and although he doesn’t like to dribble, he rarely concedes possession, using all 6’1” of his frame to retain the ball with metronomic precision. He’s also targeted more than almost any player in the Serie A, 75 times per 90. He leads Sassuolo in touches as well, with nearly 94 per match. If we’re looking for an excellent regulator of possession, with a wicked passing range and an eye for a set piece, not to mention younger with a higher xA to boot, Locatelli is our man.

He’s a durable, tactically astute on-field leader, who could be scooped up on a cut-price deal to boot, a helpful trait especially in this time of leaky finances and restricted budgets. Honestly, he’s enough like Xhaka that I think we’d need to sell the Swiss before buying him, but it would be completely worth it. He’s seriously talented.

The Tactical Monster - Konrad Laimer

23-year-old Konrad Laimer is a beast, plain and simple. The tactical fulcrum of Julian Nagelsmann’s electric Leipzig side—significantly less electric now that Laimer’s been out for most of the year with an ankle fracture—he’s one of the most press-resistant midfielders in the world, and is a constant pressing cog in one of the most intense sides in football.

On Episode 5 of the Extra Cannon Podcast, debut guest Max Mishcon debates the efficacy of Leipzig players moving into foreign systems, fairly citing Timo Werner as a failed example of such a transition, but Laimer is a whole different animal. Capable and comfortable within a double pivot or as a lone holding midfielder, and even as a creative No. 8, he has all the building blocks to thrive in Arteta’s system, especially given that Arteta’s preference to play out of the back, and the mannerism in which he does so, is nearly identical to Nagelsmann’s.

Laimer also tends to sit higher than his partner in a double pivot when maintaining possession high up the pitch, acting as a screen to prevent opponents from transitioning, and cycling possession to various creators during extended spells with the ball. His 28.51 pressures—9.94 successful—per 90, including 14.25 in the middle third and 4.31 in the final third, demonstrate that trend in his play. Each of those statistics ranks in the 99th percentile.

His tackling is similarly top-notch. He makes 3.98 tackles per 90, with 2.15 coming in the middle third of the pitch, and he wins 2.82 of those, which puts him at 98th percentile among midfielders in Europe’s top 5. And while he’s not terribly adept at intercepting the ball, he does block 1.66 passes per 90, which isn’t something to scoff at. And if you want a midfielder to replace Xhaka’s creative influence, Laimer is just that man.

He places two thirds of his shots on target, which is a pretty prodigious rate considering, and although he does his best work in the first tow thirds, 2 goals and 6 assists last Bundesliga campaign is a very decent return. His ball progression though—6.46 progressive passes, 0.66 through balls, 1.66 crosses, and 7.29 progressive carries per 90, along with an average of 2.32 players dribbled past and 9.61 passes under pressure, paint a rather accurate picture of how truly dynamic and press-resistant the Austrian international is.

Add 3.15 shot-creating actions and 0.99 goal-creating actions per 90 to that resume, and he starts to really set things alight. And with an xA of 0.25, he’s right in there among Europe’s elite when it comes to creating goals as well. And similarly to Mikel Arteta’s midfield, he is best-used when he’s able to move freely within a specific area of tactical space, much like Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey.

Of course, durability is a concern, considering he still hasn’t recovered from an ankle fracture sustained on August 29, 2020, but before that, other than a bout of flu, he didn’t miss a game due to injury in two years, which is a pretty stellar record. The other main concern is that he is right-side dominant, and has played a majority of his career on the right side of center, but a transition left might be doable if he’s willing.

Furthermore, his versatility hints at the potential to be able to cover for KT’s bombarding runs up the flank. Laimer can play at both right and left midfield, and right-back, and would presumably be comfortable dropping into the half-space on the other side of the pitch to provide defensive cover.

Above all, Laimer would be an amazing asset for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, who could work incredibly well in tandem as a defensively-able double pivot alongside Thomas Partey. He does take more risks than Granit Xhaka, which has pros and cons, but his speed of play is often much higher as well. And because of his long-term injury, there’s a chance his fee could be a few million pounds lower, which Arsenal could certainly use.

The “Dream” - Florian Neuhaus

I’ll fully admit, I had a number of additional players lined up for the fifth slot in this particular article. Yves Bissouma made my list, simply because he’s a spectacular player, but his creative stats don’t show it. Rodrigo De Paul also impressed, particularly as a creative No. 8, but his defensive contributions are pretty woeful. Denis Zakaria was yet another player I had in mind, but the closest I got to a “dream player” specifically intended to replace and upgrade Granit Xhaka was Florian Neuhaus of Borussia Monchengladbach, Xhaka’s former side.

Am I biased just because he’s one of my favorite players in world football? Without a doubt. Luckily for me, the stats just so happen to back me up.

Let’s start with his defensive contributions, as they’re the weakest portion of his play. He only wins 3.33 tackles and interceptions per 90, with an additional 1.34 passes blocked. Additionally, he only completes 13.2 pressures per 90, and although he’s successful 37.1% of the time—that’s a 97th percentile statistic—he’s also talented at countering the dribble, tackling one dribbler per match, and contesting 2.7.

And creatively, he’s exactly what we need. He scores 0.16 goals per 90, with an xG of 0.14, and assists 0.13 goals per 90, with an xA of 0.11. He also likes to shoot, waking 1.94 shots per 90 with 0.79 on target and performs best when he’s able to create from an inside-left position, similar to Xhaka. He certainly doesn’t outperform himself, and is establishing a baseline for the future. At 24 years of age, he’s just starting to blossom into his prime years, and would be an ideal pickup this summer.

And it’s his unique combination of press-resistance and dynamic, progressive passing that really sets him apart. A graceful 5’11,” he uses his smooth gait and powerful stride to complete a sizeable 6.71 progressive dribbles per 90, which, when combined with his 5.92 progressive passes, 0.29 through balls, and 10.08 passes under pressure per 90, make for a seriously potent creative force at the base of the midfield.

He typically plays on the left side of a double pivot or a three, which makes him perfect for the criteria in mind, and he’s a commanding and vocal leader on the pitch, taking directly from Matthias Ginter and Christoph Kramer in that regard. And he uses his leadership to great effect, as he’s often at the center of the goals created within the Gladbach setup, creating 2.44 shots and 0.34 goals per 90, including 0.18 shots created by shooting, which speaks both to his shot power and his penchant for shooting from range with relative accuracy.

He’s also a primary set-piece option for Gladbach from corners and free kicks, and given the standard of Arsenal’s corner takers at the moment, would be a welcome addition to Andreas Georgeson’s set-piece schemes.

Similarly to Laimer, Neuhaus also functions as the first outlet in possession for a Gladbach squad that prefer to play out from the back under Marco Rose. He’s also rather adept at drawing fouls, with 1.96 per 90, but rarely commits them, with 0.86 per 90, two traits that will certainly endear him to Mikel Arteta. He also loses a trifling 0.47 aerials per 90, a testament to his ability to read the game in the air and on the ground.

Is he a perfect player? Absolutely not. But he does provide a majority of Gladbach’s creative impetus in the first two thirds of play, and is a press-breaking specialist, something that will endear him to Arsenal fans if he continues to showcase that skill in the red-and-white.

Best of all, the European side he’s drawing the most links to at the moment is Pep Guardiola’s Man City, a sign that bodes will for his potential inclusion in this Arsenal side, as City tend to only be linked to players with the absurdly high level of quality to be able to fit into Guardiola’s side. I’d argue it’s those types of players we need to be on the hunt for, as we look to claw our way back up the English rankings.

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