Five signings that could spark Arsenal’s midfield evolution
Arsenal need a midfielder.
To be clear, Mikel Arteta has mostly worked wonders with the Gunners this season, taking advantage of the extra training time provided by not being in any European competitions to really drill his young side into shape.
And while recruitment has restocked the team impressively in defence, and the youth system has revitalised the attack, the midfield is an area in clear need of reinforcement. Thomas Partey is a sublime footballer, no doubt, and Mohamed Elneny and Sami Lokonga are solid back-ups, but that second starting spot is a sore one.
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At present, it is occupied by Granit Xhaka, the one-time club captain and red card magnet. Now, Xhaka is a fine player on his day, but he’s also accident-prone and seems to annoy every single official in the country for some reason. Moreover, the Swiss midfielder was pursued by Roma last season and José Mourinho’s club will reportedly return in their bid to sign Xhaka this coming summer.
So to solve their more short-term problems, according to Football London Arsenal hope to make an emergency loan deal with Juventus for Arthur Melo.
Compare the Brazilian midfielder’s output at pivot to Xhaka’s, taking into account league performances since the start of 2020/21, and Arthur matches up to Xhaka neatly. He even surpasses him in certain defensive areas and dribbling. Stylistically, it would be a good fit.
But what about how their midfield might evolve beyond the six months Arsenal will get from Arthur?
Yves Bissouma is someone Arsenal fans are always salivating over, a player they would love to see in their midfield. But while Bissouma is an excellent footballer, his profile isn’t a match for Xhaka’s. Or that of Arthur, a transfer target with differing skills that the club have reportedly decided they need.
Bissouma is about defensive actions, ball-carrying and duels. Less so the kind of ball recirculation provided by Arthur or Xhaka.
So what midfield metronomes should Arsenal look at this summer, to be the long-term replacement for Xhaka and the dream partner for Thomas Partey if Arthur doesn’t deliver?
- Age: 24
- Club: Leicester
- Country: Belgium
Youri Tielemans has been a hot prospect since the age of 16, but what makes him so impressive is the way he has excelled for Leicester since joining them. Tielemans offers a blend of match control as well as penetrative passes that has brought a new level of sophistication to the Foxes’ approach. That stunning FA Cup-winning goal wasn’t too bad either!
Brendan Rodgers seemed to confirm the Belgian’s potential departure recently, saying: “Youri is at an age and at a stage in his contract where he has to ensure he looks at every option. I would love it to be here at Leicester, that is natural, but I understand it’s a very short career.”
Does Tielemans pass the Xhaka Test?
Definitely. Comparing league data from last season and this, Tielemans outshines Xhaka in most categories. He’s not quite as emphatic at driving the ball forward but that’s usually due to playing in a team with more ball carriers (including himself). Meanwhile, he far outstrips Xhaka in terms of duels and defensive work. He is an exceptional player and would be a perfect fit for Arsenal.
- Age: 24
- Club: Wolves
- Country: Portugal
Wolves’ reintroduction as a Premier League side has also been one long confirmation that Ruben Neves is the real deal. When he shone for Porto as a teenager, or for Wolves in the Championship, many questioned his ability to get it done against better sides. They’re not questioning that anymore. In fact, Neves’ consistency has now made him almost underrated in what he brings, which is just about everything bar dribbling.
And just like Tielemans, his manager has given an interview in which he confirms the potential departure of his player. “Ruben feels this is his second home – and happiness comes with that,” said Bruno Lage. “That’s good, but it’s another thing to convince him to stay. It’s not about a contract or money. It’s about creating a big team that fights for different things.”
Does Ruben Neves pass the Xhaka Test?
Definitely. Looking at his statistical profile, Neves only really lags behind Xhaka in two major areas: fouls won and forward passes. In every other area, the Portuguese matches the Swiss or, in the case of defensive actions (which will, admittedly, be influenced by overall their teams’ style and possession), massively surpasses him. Adding Ruben Neves to the Arsenal midfield with Thomas Partey would give the Gunners a seriously solid centre.
- Age: 24
- Club: Lyon
- Country: Brazil
Bruno Guimaraes is a favourite of Arsenal’s social media following and it’s easy to see why. The Brazilian midfielder is the latest in a long tradition of excellent Brazilian holding midfielders, one of whom is already an Arsenal legend. But the Gunners don’t need Gilberto Silva to tell them how good Guimaraes is, and nor do Arsenal need to be encouraged to pursue him, with Guimaraes himself saying: “My aim is to win a title [at Lyon], but I have never hidden my desire to play in the Premier League.”
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Does Bruno Guimaraes pass the Xhaka Test?
And how! Admittedly Ligue 1 is a different standard to the Premier League, but Guimaraes obliterates Xhaka’s output. He doesn’t sweep passing lanes very well (neither does Xhaka) and lags a tiny bit behind on his passes, but he either matches or smashes Xhaka in every other category, especially when it comes to tackling and duels in general.
Frenkie de Jong
- Age: 24
- Club: Barcelona
- Country: Netherlands
Frenkie de Jong is a miracle player. A rugged physical opponent with sublime technical skill and a great tactical brain. He’s not always managed to show his best level for Barcelona, but the club know how obscenely talented he is and that is why media leaks about him being transfer listed exist, because they know there’d be a huge market for him.
For his part, Frenkie always envisaged playing for the Gunners. “In my mind, I have had the following list for a long time: Ajax-Arsenal-Barcelona, call it the Marc Overmars route,” he said back in 2019. “But yes, if you can go directly to Barcelona, then you are right where you want to be. Faster than you ever dared to dream.”
Does De Jong pass the Xhaka Test?
Mostly. He trails Xhaka in sheer tackles, ball recoveries and progressive passes but far outstrips him in terms of take-ons completed. Frenkie is an elite ball-carrier and would add serious dynamism to the Arsenal side, and the other numbers are misleading given that for most of his time in Catalunya; he’s been playing with Lionel Messi, who obviously hoovered up much of the progressive passing in the side and Barca’s defensive organisation has been, until Xavi’s arrival, kind of all over the place.
For another perspective, look at De Jong’s contributions from his last season at Ajax. Alright, the Eredivisie is nowhere near the level of the more monied Premier League but even if you include the Champions League, where De Jong led Ajax past juggernauts Real Madrid and Juventus, all the way to the semi-finals, he absolutely obliterates Xhaka in every single category except final third entries. It’s a massacre.
Frenkie has been unable to show his true self at Barcelona in part because of the lack of structure imposed by R0nald Koeman and also the dominance of Messi forcing a shift in the Dutchman’s game. But when Erik ten Hag played him in a double pivot, as Arteta would at Arsenal, he absolutely flew. Barcelona are unlikely to sell given De Jong’s ability and potential, but if Arsenal can catch them at a weak moment, they would snag one of the very best midfielders in the world.