Is Granit Xhaka’s absence REALLY a huge blow to Arsenal and who will replace him?
Luck just isn’t on Granit Xhaka’s side.
The Swiss midfielder put in his best performance in an Arsenal shirt against Tottenham on Sunday, but a ligament injury sustained in the game has left him out for three months.
Gunners fans raised their eyebrows when Xhaka was reinstated in Mikel Arteta’s line-up for the crucial North London derby – his first appearance since his needless red card in his side’s 5-0 loss to Manchester City. Those supporters saw those concerns swept away in the 3-1 win over Spurs, and now they don’t have that Xhaka debate anymore.
Arsenal must have Granit Xhaka (right) without knee injury for three months
Xhaka (left) might have put on his best show in an Arsenal shirt before he suffered the setback
Since arriving in the summer of 2016 for £35million, Xhaka has divided opinion among the Arsenal fanbase – as has his absence until early 2022.
Some fans believe the Gunners would be better off without the 29-year-old, who has been branded a liability by supporters and pundits in recent years for his frequent defensive mistakes.
However, Xhaka has often been described as misunderstood by analysts, especially considering Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and now Arteta have continued with him during their reigns in the Gunners hotseat.
His performances at Euro 2020 for Switzerland and his performance against Tottenham show exactly what he can bring to a team when used correctly. Many believe that Xhaka was just starting out in this up-and-coming Arsenal squad.
Xhaka (right) has divided the Arsenal fanbase with his displays since he returned in 2016
If last season’s stats prove anything, Xhaka will be a big miss for Arsenal.
The Swiss international played more balls in the final third than most Premier League midfielders and was also among the top progressive passers-by.
Xhaka’s total of 9.7 balls in the last third of the field per game and 7.5 progressive balls per game was higher than Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes for Manchester United.
Swiss star Xhaka was one of the top progressive passers in the Premier League last season
That was seen several times last season in a Gunners shirt. Xhaka scored Arsenal’s first goal against Chelsea in December last season with a sharp pass to Kieran Tierney, who went on to win a penalty over Reece James.
Xhaka also played sharp cross balls for Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang before strikes against Southampton and Leeds respectively, showing his ability to contribute to the latter stages of the game.
At Euro 2020, Xhaka played a key role in Switzerland’s victories over Turkey and France. The latter saw him again play a sharp ball through Les Bleus’ midfield for Mario Gavranovic to score a late equalizer and send the game into extra time.
BEST DEFENSIVE DUEL WINNERS 2020-21
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg: 1.61 per game
Sean Longstaff: 1.34 per game
Ruben Neves: 1.25 per game
Wilfried Ndidi: 1.24 per game
Allan: 1.23 per game
N’Golo Kante: 1.22 per game
Luka Milivojevic: 1.22 per game
GRANIT XHAKA: 1.18 PER GAME
Fred: 1.13 per game
Against Tottenham on Sunday, Xhaka was involved in building all three of Arsenal’s first-half goals that caught Spurs by surprise in the early exchanges of the match. There was a sense that Xhaka was an important base from which to lead Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka in the Gunners attack.
The 29-year-old’s defensive play also improved last season. Last season, Xhaka was one of the best midfielders in one-on-one midfielders and was on par with N’Golo Kante and Wilfried Ndidi, while having better stats than Manchester United midfielder Fred.
But under his defensive play, there were some mistakes. Xhaka donating the ball on Burnley’s path to Chris Wood in March was his eighth direct-to-go foul since his arrival in 2016, more than any other outfield player in the league.
Mistakes like this, along with the red card at Manchester City, showed why Arsenal were tempted to sell the Swiss midfielder to Roma earlier this summer.
Jose Mourinho was eager to take him in in the Italian capital after describing him as ‘Arsenal’s most important man in midfield’, with the Gunners ‘losing without him’. Pep Guardiola also called the Swiss midfielder an “incredible” player in November 2019.
But Xhaka (right) has made more goals-causing mistakes than anyone else since joining Arsenal
But Xhaka eventually stayed with Arsenal and has now been sidelined for a period of time, leaving Arteta in a dilemma as to what to do next.
The Spaniard has options at his disposal, but they lack the experience Xhaka brings to the Gunners first team.
Albert Sambi Lokonga, who replaced Xhaka for the final minutes against Spurs on Sunday, is the most likely option to fill in, with the young Belgian midfielder impressing during his opening games at the Emirates Stadium.
The 21-year-old impressed in his starts against Brentford and Chelsea and the stats confirmed it.
Albert Sambi Lokonga (center) is the favorite to replace Xhaka in Gunners midfield
Mikel Arteta could call on Mohamed Elneny (left) and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (right) in midfield
SAMBI LOKONGA VS XHAKA
Granite Xhaka: 2
Albert Sambi Lokonga: 3
Tackles per match
Sambi Lokonga: 2.2
Clearances per game
Xhaka: 0.3 (blocks: 0.3)
Sambi Lokonga: 0.6 (Blocks: 0.8)
Sambi Lokonga: 85.7%
Sambi Lokonga managed more tackles, clearances and blocks per game than Xhaka, while the Belgian has also surpassed the former Gunners captain in passing accuracy at the start of this season.
There are some doubts about his experience, however, as Arteta chose not to start him in the 5-0 loss to Manchester City, nor the great North London derby with Spurs.
Meanwhile, Ainsley Maitland-Niles could also fill in and Xhaka’s injury presents a great opportunity for the 24-year-old to reinvigorate his career at the Emirates Stadium.
Maitland-Niles took to Instagram furiously to complain about his playing time in north London and was told to train with his reserves after a move to Everton failed to materialize.
The England international and Arteta have sorted out their issues on deadline day and the midfielder now has a great chance to play more in North London if he plays his cards right.
Mohamed Elneny is another option for Arteta, but he is unlikely to be at the front of the line as a replacement for Xhaka, as he was nearly sold to Turkey’s Besiktas at the end of the transfer window.
Arteta could be tempted to change Arsenal’s form until Xhaka returns, a move he risked during the Gunners’ 1-0 win over Burnley earlier this month.
Arteta’s (right) progress with this Arsenal squad may be hampered by Xhaka’s absence
The Gunners manager closed out the 4-2-3-1 formation he normally uses, playing Smith Rowe and Odegaard as two attacking midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation.
Arsenal showed against Spurs on Sunday that Smith Rowe and Odegaard can wreak havoc in defense but would leave Thomas Partey isolated as a defensive option could fail attacking.
The coming weeks will prove crucial for Arsenal as their rise to the Premier League table under Arteta continues. Their next five games are all highly winnable, but the lack of Xhaka, despite its divisive nature, could cause problems in their progress.