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Quick Hits: Xhaka likely to leave Arsenal
What next at the Emirates?
Hi, and welcome to what I hope will be a recurring feature on here: Quick Hits. As the name suggests, they’re going to be shorter and punchier newsletters responding to things that are happening in football. This is in addition to my other writing and shouldn’t cut down on anything else.
So let’s get into today’s story: Granit Xhaka is on the verge of leaving Arsenal. Reports indicate he’s about to agree a four year contract with Bayer Leverkusen, who will be paying Arsenal about £13 million for the midfielder.
This would’ve been welcomed a couple of years ago, when Xhaka was a much less popular figure. But he’s had an excellent season this time around in a slightly more advanced role. Moving to a genuine 4-3-3 shape with Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard as “free eights” was a key factor in Arsenal’s improvement under Mikel Arteta. Breaking up a team that came so close instead of just adding more quality feels wrong, but he turns 31 in September and has only a year left on his deal. Presumably Arsenal offered Xhaka a shorter contract, which he rejected in favour of Leverkusen’s four year deal. It happens, and that means you have to sell him now. He’s good, but he’s not irreplaceable.
So Arsenal need to replace him. The players David Ornstein (who would know) says Arsenal want the most are Declan Rice and Moisés Caicedo (probably just one rather than both). To be honest, I don’t really like either as a Xhaka replacement. West Ham use Rice as a box-to-box player who can cause problems in the final third, but I’ve never thought that scales up to a bigger club. He’s West Ham’s best player, so they have to get him as involved as possible. But when he plays for England, alongside the calibre of players closer to Arsenal’s standard, he never sets foot in the final third. His job is to be a classic defensive midfielder, which he is genuinely excellent at, then calmly pass the ball to players with more technical quality than him. I think he makes far more sense as a long term successor to Thomas Partey than a Xhaka replacement.
Caicedo is a little bit more of an unknown because we haven’t seen him in an environment with lots of good players, but he again reads as much more of a defensive midfielder to me. Maybe Arteta is planning to change the system, perhaps with Jorginho starting as a regista in a double pivot, but I don’t know why he’d fix what isn’t broken. If Arsenal are looking for a genuine Xhaka replacement, I don’t think they’ve found one in Rice or Caicedo.
Mason Mount has been linked to just about every big club in England, and he’d make more sense here. I don’t think it’d be hard to just swap in Mount for Xhaka. More curiously, reports emerged that Arsenal are sniffing around at João Cancelo. He’s obviously not a midfielder. But I wonder if there’s a world where Cancelo starts regularly at left back playing the role exactly as Oleksandr Zinchenko does (they both did it for Man City of course), while Zinchenko fills Xhaka’s midfield role. Zinchenko started his career as an attacking midfielder, and with his left footed technical prowess, he’s surely the most similar player to Xhaka in the current squad. Obviously, Man City might not want to sell Cancelo to Arsenal. But it’d be an interesting way of solving the problem without changing the overall team structure.
Arteta has been a smart tactical problem solver at Arsenal, and I’m sure he’ll find the answer. Right now, though, the post-Xhaka midfield is a little unclear.
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