Granit Xhaka was putting in his best Arsenal display before knee ligament injury struck to leave him out for three months… but is his absence REALLY a killer blow with Sambi Lokonga and Maitland-Niles waiting in the wings?
- Granit Xhaka has been ruled out for three months with a knee ligament injury
- The Arsenal midfielder got injured in his best ever Gunners display against Spurs
- Xhaka was one of the Premier League’s best progressive passers last season
- Albert Sambi Lokonga, Mo Elneny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles could replace him
Luck just isn’t on Granit Xhaka’s side.
The Swiss midfielder put in arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt against Tottenham on Sunday, but a ligament injury picked up in the game now has him ruled him out for three months.
Gunners fans raised their eyebrows when Xhaka was reinstalled to 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 away loss at Manchester City. Those supporters saw those concerns swept away during the 3-1 win over Spurs, and now they don’t have that Xhaka debate anymore.
Arsenal will be without Granit Xhaka (right) for three months with a knee ligament injury
Xhaka (left) put in arguably his best display in an Arsenal shirt before getting the setback
Ever since he arrived for £35million back in the summer of 2016, Xhaka has divided opinion among the Arsenal fanbase – as does his absence until the start of 2022.
Some fans believe that the Gunners are better off without the 29-year-old, who has been branded as a liability by supporters and pundits in recent years due to his frequent defensive errors.
However, Xhaka has often been described as misunderstood by analysts, especially considering Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and now Arteta have persisted with him throughout their reigns in the Gunners hotseat.
His performances at Euro 2020 for Switzerland and his display against Tottenham shows exactly what he can bring to a team when used correctly. Many believe that Xhaka was just getting started in this rising Arsenal team.
Xhaka (right) has divided the Arsenal fanbase with his displays since arriving back in 2016
If last season’s statistics are anything to go by, then Xhaka will be a big miss for Arsenal.
The Switzerland international played more balls into the final third than most Premier League midfielders and was also among the top-flight’s best progressive passers.
Xhaka’s tally of 9.7 balls into the final third of the pitch per game and 7.5 progressive balls per game were higher than the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes for Manchester United.
Swiss star Xhaka was one of the Premier League’s best progressive passers last season
That was seen several times in a Gunners shirt last season. Xhaka set up Arsenal’s first goal against Chelsea in December last season with an incisive ball out to Kieran Tierney, who then won a penalty off Reece James.
Xhaka also played incisive through balls for Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for strikes against Southampton and Leeds respectively, showing he is capable of contributing to the final phase of play.
At Euro 2020, Xhaka played key roles in Switzerland’s victories over Turkey and France. The latter saw him play another incisive ball through Les Bleus’ midfield for Mario Gavranovic to score a late equaliser to 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 the build-up for all three of Arsenal’s first-half goals that blitzed Spurs in the opening exchanges of the game. There was the feeling that Xhaka was an important base to release the likes of Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka ahead of him in the Gunners attack.
The 29-year-old’s defensive game improved last season too. Last term, Xhaka was one of the best midfielders in one-versus-one midfielders and was on par with N’Golo Kante and Wilfried Ndidi, while he had better stats that Manchester United midfielder Fred.
But among his defensive game, there were some errors. Xhaka gifting the ball in the path to Burnley’s Chris Wood in March was his eighth error directly leading to a goal since his arrival in 2016, more than any other outfield player in the league.
These type of errors, 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 keen to take him on in the Italian capital having described him as ‘the main man in Arsenal’s midfield’ with the Gunners ‘lost without him’. Pep Guardiola also called the Swiss midfielder an ‘incredible’ player back in November 2019.
But Xhaka (right) has made more errors leading to goals than anyone since he joined Arsenal
But Xhaka ended up staying at Arsenal and is now set for a period on the sidelines, leaving Arteta with a dilemma about what to do next.
The Spaniard has options at his disposal but they lack the experience that Xhaka brings to the Gunners first-team.
Albert Sambi Lokonga, who replaced Xhaka for the final few minutes on Sunday against Spurs, is the most likely option to come in, with the young Belgian midfielder impressing during his opening matches at the Emirates Stadium.
The 21-year-old impressed in his starts against Brentford and Chelsea and the statistics backed him up on that.
Albert Sambi Lokonga (centre) is the favourite to replace Xhaka in the Gunners midfield
Mikel Arteta could call on Mohamed Elneny (left) and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (right) in midfield
SAMBI LOKONGA VS XHAKA
Granit Xhaka: 2
Albert Sambi Lokonga: 3
Tackles per game
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 also edges the former Gunners captain in terms of passing accuracy at the start of this season.
However, there are some doubts over his experience, given Arteta chose not to start him during the 5-0 loss to Manchester City, nor the big north London derby with Spurs.
Meanwhile, Ainsley Maitland-Niles could also come in and Xhaka’s injury presents a great opportunity for the 24-year-old to revive his career at the Emirates Stadium.
Maitland-Niles furiously took to Instagram to complain about his game time in north London and was told to train with his reserves after a move to Everton failed to materialise.
The England international and Arteta resolved their issues on deadline day and the midfielder now has a great chance to feature more regularly in north London, should he play his cards right.
Mohamed Elneny is another option for Arteta but is unlikely to be at the front of the queue as Xhaka’s replacement, given he was nearly sold to Turkish side Besiktas at the end of the transfer window.
Arteta could be tempted to change Arsenal’s shape until Xhaka returns, a move that he risked during the Gunners’ 1-0 win at Burnley earlier this month.
Arteta’s (right) progress with this Arsenal team could be hindered by Xhaka’s absence
The Gunners manager ditched the 4-2-3-1 formation he normally uses and played Smith Rowe and Odegaard as two attacking midfielders in a 4-3-3 set-up.
Arsenal showed on Sunday against Spurs that Smith Rowe and Odegaard can cause havoc among defences but it would leave Thomas Partey isolated as a defensive option could attacks break down.
The next few weeks will prove critical for Arsenal as their rise up the Premier League table continues under Arteta. Their next five games are all very winnable, but the lack of Xhaka could, despite his divisive nature, cause issues in their progress.
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