Xhaka injury highlights importance of midfield duopoly
He may still divide opinion amongst the Arsenal fanbase but Granit Xhaka remains a vital piece in Mikel Arteta’s stockpile, and that importance was on display in the Gunners 3-1 win against Tottenham in the North London Derby.
Xhaka was at the heart of the action along with midfield partner Thomas Partey when Arteta’s troops made it three wins in three after a trio of losses on the spin, but now consigned Spurs to an identical fate after the Nuno Espírito Santo regime got off to a flying start.
But the injury to Xhaka, which is expected to keep him out for at least 6-8 weeks, has potentially thrown a monkey wrench in Arteta’s tactical plans.
Granit Xhaka has suffered a ruptured inner ligament in his right knee, according to @AndreasBoeni.
Initial diagnosis suggests he'll be out for at least 6 to 8 weeks. #AFC
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley_) September 28, 2021
Despite a bright start to the Arsenal career of Sambi Lokonga and the potential resurgence by Ainsley Maitland-Niles, neither player is capable of the efficient nature in which Xhaka can operate as the deepest option in midfield while in a central pair.
Arteta’s tactical options
The Xhaka-Partey duopoly was one of the key assets for Arsenal down the backstretch of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign as the Gunners ran riot during a brilliant spell of form that nearly ended in a late end-run into the European places.
Despite his near-move to AS Roma over the summer, Xhaka was and is still valued at the Emirates by Arteta, the players, and coaching staff alike, and how he is replaced during a longer period than his red card suspension is a tough question to answer.
Certainly, the absence of the influential Swiss midfielder puts on hold Arsenal in a 4-3-3 under Arteta at least on paper, but the tactical versatility of both Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard could potentially come into play.
Both Smith Rowe and Ødegaard have been deployed in midfield before, and the desire for a free-roaming 8 amongst a midfield trio could certainly be seen at the Emirates while offering central depth to temporarily fill the Xhaka void.
Whether Arteta is willing to test that theory across a two-month period remains to be seen, but with current central options now beginning to be stretched, it is hard to see the Arsenal boss wanting to utilize three of four players at once without understanding the risk of further injury issues cropping up.
This article was edited by Josh Barker.
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