I bet Mikel Arteta thinks he’s got some kind of mini curse, because no sooner has he got a full strength squad to choose from, no sooner has he got his selection he can decide exactly based on the game that is being played, does he have one of his key men taken away from him.
That’s the situation he finds himself in today as reports are emerging that he’s done some ligament damage and will be out for between six to eight weeks. It’s a big blow for the manager who clearly defines Xhaka as one of his main lieutenants will now be out for a period of time.
Now, there will be some Arsenal fans that will see this as a relief, particularly with the red mist moment that we all saw against Man City about a month ago. ‘Xhaka doing Xhaka things’ many of us said – me included – and the frustration we all had was fairly evident. But what we got on Sunday with Xhaka’s impressive display alongside Partey, is actually closer to what we saw last season when Xhaka and Partey were deployed in that double pivot in front of our back four. We know he can’t run. We know that when in a footrace he is going to lose, we also know that he can slow down the play with too many touches. But we should all also know by now that positionally he is a man who Arteta can rely on. He takes up space to receive the ball from defenders, or in positions on the field where you will often find the ball dropping for a 50-50. Yes, in a duel he is less likely to come out on top; his footwork isn’t great and mobility limits him to stretch out a leg to nick the ball away like Partey does. But what he does deliver is the ability to keep play ticking over and when we had Arteta at his best many people said the same about him. I remember a few times calling Arteta ‘The Metronome’ and I don’t think I coined that phrase, I think it was used by many others, and so I wonder if that’s why Arteta is so insistent in keeping Xhaka in this team and why he came straight in on Sunday.
So now he is without one of his main men and a player with whom we don’t have a direct replacement who can do what he does. Perhaps that is a good thing. For every great thing Xhaka does, it feels like there is an equal and opposite reaction. The reality is that Xhaka probably has two to three brain farts a season in two to three matches. Three matches out of 50 is not a lot though, from a statistical perspective, it’s just that the mistakes he makes nearly always end in something catastrophic for the team (sending off against Man City, booting the ball of Chris Wood away to Burnley last season, sending off against Burnley at home, etc). So whilst I – like you – feel exasperated by Xhaka at times, in the main what we get is a steady player with whom we know the limitations, but when put alongside a Rolls Royce player like Partey, we see just how good he can be.
Where does that leave us then? Well, I think inevitably it means more game time for Sambi Lokonga and that may be a good thing. He’s impressed so far, he’s looked strong, athletic, great on the turn when he receives the ball, plus he is a very progressive passer. He ‘feels’ more dynamic than Xhaka, but if he is now going to be the main man, then we really are going to see whether he can make the step up on a regular basis. Eight weeks takes us to the end of November/beginning of December. The AFCON is in January and Partey will be off for that, so providing Sambi keeps his good form going he could see a lot more game time than I think most of us expected.
That puts a lot of pressure on a kid with whom I suspect Arteta thought he’d give between five and 10 starts to this season in all competitions, then probably another 10 to 15 appearances from the bench. Suddenly he’s looking at making him his main man and that means that the allowance for mistakes is reduced. I hope that he is up for it. He seems like a character who can handle responsibility, as evidenced by the fact he was Anderlecht captain last season, but the Premier League is an ‘all eyes’ competition and it will be incumbent on Arteta and the coaching staff to look after him and also his confidence. We’ve seen examples every season where the confidence of a player can impact their performance and the need to ensure that when that dip comes from Sambi, that he is well supported and can ride the storm and come out the other side, will be so very important.
There are of course other options in the shape of Maitland-Niles and Elneny and perhaps Ainsley will see a bit more time in midfield, just as he wanted, but I suspect it’ll be a little more of Mo Elneny too, much to my annoyance. He’s a nice enough and likeable guy, but it feels like we’ve been talking about his limitations for a decade, so to still be talking about it is somewhat frustrating.
Hopefully he’s in at fifth choice for central midfield though. I can handle that if you’re saying it’s Partey, then Xhaka, then Sambi, then Ainsley, then Elneny. That should hopefully mean we’re looking at League Cup and maybe a January third round FA Cup fixture for the Egyptian and I’m fine with that. But I still think Arteta is going to use him in Premier League games from the bench. The hope is that he doesn’t just chuck him in thinking he can replicate that United away game from last season. It feels very much like an outlier to me, but perhaps it depends on the opponent?
Whatever Arteta decides, he has options, he has his players, they should have confidence and for a long time in a while we should be going in to games expecting to see a proper Arsenal team. Perhaps he’ll use it as an opportunity to start implementing the 4-3-3 more often, with two number eights in the shape of Smith Rowe and Odegaard behind Pepe, Saka and Aubameyang? We saw that against Burnley and whilst I’ve been spending my time talking about somebody to sit alongside Partey in a double pivot, maybe this gives Arteta the opportunity to deploy that revised set up on a more regular basis?
Hopefully we get the same side last weekend as we do this weekend away to Brighton.
Catch you all tomorrow with some more thoughts.