Arsenal have their own Ilkay Gundogan amid worrying Thomas Partey update ahead of Tottenham

The Gunners face Spurs in the North London Derby at the Emirates Stadium where the midfield battle will be crucial

Another international break, another meltdown among the Arsenal fanbase. As news emerged of Thomas Partey’s withdrawal from the Ghana squad due to a suspected knee injury, supporters scrambled frantically to their keyboards to vent frustration at the Gunners’ decision to even allow one of their most important players to go away with his country at all. In reality though, their biggest concern should have been someone starring hundreds of miles away.

Make no mistake, Partey is crucial to what Arsenal have evolved into under Mikel Arteta. His combination of press resistance, passing quality and defensive awareness are a rare blend among any player in world football and should he be absent for Saturday’s North London Derby, it would be a massive blow.

But there is a presence in this table-topping Gunners side who has arguably established himself as a more important figure in the midfield. That man is Granit Xhaka.

Such a statement would probably have been unthinkable as recently as a few months ago. Throughout the summer much of the talk surrounding Arsenal was that they would have to strengthen in the left eight position where the Swiss midfielder had been plying his trade in the back half of last season. Links to Youri Tielemans refused to go away throughout the whole transfer window, but in the end Arteta chose to stick by his man.

The narrative around Xhaka is a curious one in that we rarely seem to spend much time talking about his football. The Swiss international arrived in 2016 with a reputation as a ‘hot head’ that shifted the focus onto his personality rather than his playing ability. Perhaps it’s due to his constant willingness to front up during times of difficulty, or the high profile nature of his loss of Arsenal captaincy in 2019, but the discourse hasn’t really altered much since.

Of course, his influential character and love-hate relationship with supporters are compelling, but if we pause to take a look at how he’s evolved in recent months, it’s fascinating to see how important he’s become.

Through fluctuations of form and confidence, what has remained largely constant during Mikel Arteta’s time at Arsenal is the desire to have his team operate in a 2-3-5 set up when on the ball. This is focused on ensuring possessional dominance while maintaining positional security.

Early on it saw Kieran Tierney bomb on from left back to support Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka in the attacking quintet. The Scot’s aggressive attacking runs left a vacant space behind him that needed to be filled, with Xhaka being tasked with that responsibility. This restricted him from getting forward too often for fear of leaving Arsenal’s back door totally unlocked.

However, with the summer arrival of Oleksandr Zinchenko this has changed drastically. As someone who has spent much of his career playing in midfield, the Ukrainian’s instinct is to drift infield, creating a midfield trio alongside Partey and Ben White, who has operated as an inverted full-back on the other side of the pitch.

This has given Xhaka the license to bomb on and support the attacking line to great effect. You only need look at the Swiss midfielder’s contrasting heatmaps from 2020/21 and this season to notice the change.

It should be said that we saw this a little last season when Tierney was asked to play a more inverted role in the absence of Takehiro Tomiyasu, but this campaign Xhaka’s attacking influence has gone to a whole other level. In his previous three seasons, the Swiss midfielder managed just one goal and two assists consecutively but this time around he has beaten that tally before the first international break.

As Arteta seeks to create something akin to what his mentor Pep Guardiola has done at Manchester City, this role Xhaka is playing can perhaps be most accurately compared to that of Ilkay Gundogan. The German is a master of causing problems in the final third from a deeper position, but so far this season, Xhaka has actually created more chances than him in the Premier League (23 vs 22 as per fbRef).

His assist for Gabriel Jesus’s first competitive goal for Arsenal against Leicester is a perfect example of this. As Gabriel Martinelli works the ball to Xhaka in the box, he has pushed up to form the attacking quintet along with Jesus, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard. Just behind him you can see Zinchenko, while White is over on the other side of the pitch providing the defensive cover in the event of a counter.

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