Would Ruben Neves Be an Upgrade on Granit Xhaka for Arsenal?
By Jahid Islam (New Writer)
Welcome, readers of WLYABlog! My name’s Jahid (@MadAboutMari on twitter) and it’s a pleasure to be writing this piece for you!
Like many of you, my social media feeds have been flooded by reports linking Ruben Neves of Wolverhampton Wanderers to Arsenal as a Granit Xhaka replacement, with the Swiss rumoured to be on the way out of north London this Summer. The Times and The Daily Mail, among others, have spent the first weekend of June writing about the potential for Neves to move to Arsenal for the princely sum of £34 million. This appears an extortionate price-tag for a player who’s struggled this season in comparison to other central midfield targets identified by the club and associated parties.
From a tactical standpoint, signing Neves makes a semblance of sense. Arteta has previously said that the 4-3-3 formation is his preferred formation, and players we’ve been linked to recently such as Houssem Aouar, Emi Buendia, Sander Berge etc. can all play in a midfield trio. Maybe if you’d told me a few seasons ago that we could line up with a midfield of Aouar-Partey-Neves, I’d have been tingling with excitement. Buzzing, even. But the past season has been a bit of a disappointment for Neves and many other of his colleagues at Wolves.
Stats from fbref.com clearly refute the main reason that many have cited as being the reason for Arsenal’s interest in Neves; his forward passing.
Of course, with any statistical analysis, we have to consider the context behind the stats themselves. Arsenal play a lot of short, keep-ball, and sideways passes that make Xhaka’s short and medium passes look very impressive on paper, but absolutely infuriating to watch on the field of play at times. However, we can clearly see that Xhaka ranks in the 95th percentile of European midfielders from the Top Five Leagues Progressive Passes whilst Neves is far lower down, in the 71st percentile.
I mean, CIES Football Observatory placed Xhaka in the Premier League Team of the Season, and I believe his passing and dependability has had quite a large say in that.
That being said, the disparity between the passing stats of the two makes it odd that we’d splash a hefty chunk of cash on Neves. Moreover, Xhaka’s an influential member of the first team regardless of what fan agendas have to say, and would we truly benefit from offloading such a widely respected figure? It's a contentious issue.
You may love him or hate him, but the reality is that Xhaka is a leader in that dressing room, and has been rather reliable in the midfield over the last few seasons. Barring a few costly errors this season, he’s been a dependable presence in the squad too.
We move onto the oh-so-important defensive aspect of a Central Midfielder’s toolkit, and the stats portray a picture of an impressive outlay from the Portuguese. I’ll admit, I was caught off-guard by Neves’ brilliant defensive output this season in comparison to Xhaka's. I’m scared of heights, and the staggering difference between the defensive statistics of Xhaka and Neves is making me a bit dizzy if we’re being honest. Have a look yourself, and you’ll come to a similar conclusion.
Neves, whilst lacking in the passing department relative to the Swiss National team Captain, is a much more rounded defensive player. He thus won’t be a liability when pressing as a unit and could form a dominant partnership with Thomas Partey in that midfield under our current system.
Partey has played brilliantly recently alongside Mohamed Elneny, a relentless presser of the ball, and Neves could bring a similar intensity to the XI along with the rest of his talents. Neves also has notable talent from set pieces, and we wouldn’t miss the sensational Xhaka-booms that have been relatively rare as of late. Xhaka-booms out, Ruben-Rockets in? There’s alliteration, so it must be good, right?
Reports around the transfer policy at Arsenal claim that we’re looking for proven Premier League players who can perform from the off. Hence the supposed interest in Sterling, Berge, Bissouma, and now Neves. At only 24 years old, and with 3 years of PL football under his belt, Neves has plenty of experience and plenty of years left to offer us.
His age was also somewhat of a surprise to me. With that majestic beard and abundance of experience, I thought he was at least around Xhaka’s age. A beard like the one on Neves puts even Daniel Finton to shame (sorry, Pimplord!).
My opinion throughout this piece has been swayed one way to the other by stats, comparisons, and watching each player over the last few seasons. But one thing hasn’t changed. That damn price-tag; £34 million. “Are you serious?”
Nonetheless, without the allure of European football, a player like Neves could be a realistic target for us this summer. He's young and seeking a step-up and a project to invest his effort into. Remember, we signed a 23-Year-old Xhaka for a similar fee in 2016. With interest from Roma in him now, it might be the time to cash out and squeeze the most we can get out of Xhaka. They say that drawing blood from a stone is a near impossibility, but can we pull out more than £20mil from Granit(e)? **ba dum tss**
So, what are my final thoughts exactly?
Firstly, that Neves’ long passing has been a consistent stand out over his 4 years in England. The rest of his passing stats seem unflattering in comparison to Xhaka's, but there’s definitely room for development and improvement from the promising Portuguese international. His defensive stats are subtly superb and will prove invaluable in suppressing attacks, easing the dependence on our back line, and enabling our fullbacks to supplement our attack.
Secondly, the £34mil fee is eye-watering, but for such a vital position, we’ll have to invest heavily. The tactical flexibility, long passing, high pressing, and set-piece proficiency offered by Neves has swayed me, at least somewhat, to the belief Arsenal should sign Neves.
One immensely significant point to consider, however, is that signing Neves alone will not turn our fortunes around.
The squad is crying out for reinforcements across the defensive line, attacking midfield, and even upfront. If these areas aren’t addressed first, then regardless of whether Neves joins or not, we won’t progress up the table and we’ll be condemned to another season of mediocrity.
I’d hate to see Xhaka leave during a time when such leaders are essential to rebuilding our squad. But if the right offer comes along then our hand may be forced, and signing Neves may not be as poor a move as many people think it would be.
Cheers for reading! See you next week for more bad puns and interesting takes!