While Granit Xhaka’s absence due to a right knee ligament injury has shown how important he can be to Arsenal’s play, the Swiss international is also not viewed by some as the long-term answer to the Gunners’ midfield options.Xhaka, now in his sixth season in north London, is a figure of great debate and controversy. There are those for whom he can do no wrong; there are others who criticise his every move.
But now 29 and still never having quite reached the heights expected of him when Arsene Wenger signed him for £35million in 2016, the same summer N’Golo Kante signed for Chelsea, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s focus must surely turn to an eventual successor, an issue that has plagued the squad for many years.
A growing number of fans have called on the club to improve on Xhaka for some time, but Arsenal have been unable to do so – and have not hugely tried, other than signing Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid two summers ago, a man who has mostly partnered, not superseded, Xhaka.
As Arteta continues his remake of the Arsenal squad, then, which accelerated prior to this season, finding a long-term successor for Xhaka will be vital.
Here are five potential options based on their statistical output.
While Arsenal have flexed their financial muscles in recent years, spending almost £400million over the past three seasons, the club is still very much on the lookout for economically friendly signings. Of all the deals they have completed in the past three summer windows, only one has surpassed £50m – Nicolas Pepe for £72m. Partey and Ben White, £45m and £50m respectively, are the only others to top £40 million.
It means being financially frugal is still a priority, and there is hardly more frugal than a free transfer. Denis Zakaria of Borussia Monchengladbach provides such an opportunity.
Per FBREF, in the Bundesliga this season, Zakaria has averaged 4.61 progressive passes per 90 minutes. This is allied with 4.09 passes into the final third per 90 and 0.52 chances created per game. Moreover, across 2,471 minutes played over the last 365 days, Zakaria has completed 88.9 per cent of his passes, which ranks him in the 87th percentile among midfielders in the top-five European leagues. They are decent passing statistics for a deep-lying midfielder who specialises in progressing the ball forward.
Zakaria also carries the ball 41.9 times per 90, 4.78 of which are deemed progressive – this being a carry that advances play by five yards or more in the final 60 per cent of the pitch or any carry into the penalty area.
Defensively, Zakaria is elite. 2.19 interceptions per 90 is in the 90th percentile among midfielders in the top-five European leagues over the last year, while 2.08 blocks ranks in the 88th percentile. Where he struggles, however, is pressures, totalling just 12.82 per 90, but given his speed and stamina, that is likely more attributable to instruction, rather than ability.
Add in that Zakaria is available on a free transfer next summer with his contract expiring, and he is a very attractive option indeed.
Bar Eduardo Camavinga, who has already signed with Real Madrid, there might not be as exciting a young defensive midfielder in world football as Aurelien Tchouameni. And, predictably, he hails from France – and Monaco.
Tchouameni, who turns 22 in January, has been ever-present in Monaco’s midfield since the start of last season. He made 36 Ligue 1 appearances in the last campaign, and followed that up with another 16 this year already. Over the last 365 days, he has played north of 3,000 minutes of league football, and his numbers rack up with the very best in the world.
Progression-wise, he ranks highly among midfielders in the top-five European leagues over the past year in almost every metric. His 56.93 passes attempted are in the 67th percentile, he ranks in the 75th percentile with 5.03 progressive passes, 67th percentile with 4.65 progressive carries and 65th percentile with 0.97 dribbles completed. His pass completion rate of 84.9 per cent ranks in the 57th percentile.
Where Tchouameni shines is defensively. His 3.97 tackles per 90 are in the 99th percentile. His 2.74 interceptions are in the 98th percentile, while his 2.5 aerials won are in the 92nd percentile. He provides 18.6 pressures per 90 also, and 1.86 clearances per 90. He is an action-packed midfielder, with and without the ball.
Over the last two seasons, the Frenchman has also provided three goals and four assists. Those numbers certainly aren’t flashy, but they represent a nice output from deep midfield.
Whether Arsenal could afford and attract Tchouameni is another question, but his statistics outline an ideal Xhaka successor.
Another high-ranking midfielder who may be out of Arsenal’s price range when next summer rolls around – although the same was said about Partey – AC Milan’s Frank Kessie is enjoying an excellent season at the heart of the Italian team’s midfield.
Milan currently sit top of the table, and Kessie has been a major reason why, playing 13 of their 16 league games to date. The Ivorian, who turns 25 later this month, is a slightly more offensive player than Xhaka, but could dovetail neatly with Partey, though Africa Cup of Nations concerns are valid.
Over the past year, Kessie has produced 2.36 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, good for the 73rd percentile among midfielders. He scored 13 goals with four assists in the league last season, and already has three goals in Serie A this year. That he has 2.54 touches in the penalty area per 90 – 91st percentile among midfielders – and has received 2.67 progressive passes per 90 – 75th percentile – illustrates his more advanced positioning.
Kessie carries the ball well, ranking in the 69th percentile for progressive passes and 71st percentile for completed dribbles, while his pass completion rate of 88.8 per cent is also very tidy.
As such, if Arteta was hoping to use Partey in a slightly deeper role with a more forward-thinking, goal-getting option next to him, Kessie is the perfect solution.
If Arteta is looking for a younger version of Xhaka – a player who excels in the passing game but is limited in terms of carrying the ball and is not as active defensively – he need look no further than Maxime Lopez of Sassuolo, a club that is perhaps an unknown market for Premier League fans.
Of all the players on this list, his passing statistics are by far the best. Over the last year, he ranks in the 97th percentile for passes attempted, 98th for pass completion rate and 91st for progressive passes among midfielders in the top-five European leagues.
1.28 key passes per 90 and 6.24 passes into the final third per 90 also illustrate how penetrative and Xhaka-like Lopez’s distribution is.
His 0.06 expected assists per 90 rank just below average, while his 2.63 shot-creating actions are in the 82nd percentile and perhaps indicate a more attacking side to his game than Xhaka.
Where he struggles is defensively. Lopez ranks below average in pressures, tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances and aerials won when compared with midfielders in the top-five European leagues. Whether Arsenal want another spraying passer who lacks defensive traits remains to be seen, but Lopez certainly has the passing range to emulate Xhaka in possession.
Albert Sambi Lokonga
Ultimately, Arsenal signed Albert Sambi Lokonga for a reason – to replace Matteo Guendouzi as the young star around which their midfield would be built. And while the young Belgian might not be ready for a full-time role just yet, and Xhaka’s return to fitness will see him relegated to the bench temporarily, in his opening period in north London, the 22-year-old showed plenty of signs that he can be a long-term starter in the Gunners’ midfield.
In 809 minutes, Lokonga ranks in the 86th percentile for passes completed, 67th percentile for progressive passes and 91st percentile for progressive passes among midfielders across the top five leagues. In essence, he is an exceptionally progressive player, both when carrying the ball and supplying those ahead of him.