With Lucas Torreira reportedly set for the Arsenal exit and Matteo Guendouzi expected to follow suit, Mikel Arteta is clearly making room for a new arrival. The departures would leave the current first-choice midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos with just Mohamed Elneny as backup, but it has been widely reported that the club must offload players in order to finance moves for their top targets.
Those top targets are no secret whatsoever. The club have been trailing Atletico Madrid star Thomas Partey for some time – making Torreira’s proposed move in the opposite direction an eye-catching one – as well as holding a long-standing interest in Lyon’s Houssem Aouar.
Given the two fit very different profiles stylistically, it doesn’t seem logical that one would be the second choice to the other, but it also seems highly unlikely that Arsenal will be able to fund deals for both before the close of the transfer window. With that in mind, we pose the question as to which should be the club’s priority signing to bolster their midfield ranks based on the strengths and weaknesses of their current options.
While one might assume that of the current midfield pairing, it’s Granit Xhaka that does the lions’ share of the defensive work, the Swiss international’s role in that respect is more to do with positional play than necessarily breaking it up. The former captain is renowned for his disciplinary record and erratic tackling at times, but in truth he does relatively little when it comes to regaining possession.
An average of 1.6 tackles per 90 is modest at best, while so too is a 60 per cent success rate when factoring how often he is dribbled past. Dani Ceballos, by comparison, averaged a solid 2.4 tackles per 90 last season, but that figure requires context. The Spaniard was dribbled past almost as often as he produced a tackle (51.1 per cent success rate), which is a pretty worrying statistic for a midfielder without any great defensive cover from his teammate.
Ceballos does, however, anticipate opposition passes better than his partner is the middle of the pitch, averaging another solid 1.7 interceptions per 90 to Xhaka’s meagre 0.7. It’s clear, then, that the duo could be far stronger from a defensive standpoint.
In terms of bringing Partey and Aouar into the equation, there is no contest as to which would offer greater solidity in that regard. Partey’s average of 2.5 tackles per 90 last season is almost double that of Aouar (1.3), who did admittedly operate in a wider variety of often more attacking midfield roles. That figure of 2.5 is only marginally better than that of Ceballos, but crucially, Partey is dirbbled past considerably less frequently, boasting a much improved tackle success rate of 68.6 per cent.
Again, that’s a figure Aouar can’t come close to, with a poor 52.8 per cent by comparison, and Partey again unsurprisingly outperforms the Frenchman in interceptions (1.7 to 0.6). While much of this may come as no surprise, particularly in the case of Arsenal’s apparent targets, the comparison becomes more interesting when assessing each player’s ability in possession.
On the face of it, it would appear that Thomas Partey is the weakest passer of the four based on his overall accuracy, but the drastic difference in playing styles between the clubs is of course a huge factor. In Arsenal’s more patient, possession-based approach, both Xhaka and Ceballos boasted very similar, impressive accuracies of 88.1 and 87.9 per cent respectively. By contrast, Aouar’s sat at a more modest 85.7 per cent, while Partey’s was lower still at 83.4 per cent.
Given the general (mis)conception that Partey is perhaps the most defensive player of the quartet, those pass accuracy figures may come as a surprise, but again, context is required. Crucially, when assessing how progressive each midfielder is with their passing, it’s Partey that actually comes out on top, and by a distance too.
Indeed, when looking at the proportion of each players’ passes that are made forwards, it’s Aouar (24 per cent) and Ceballos (24.7 per cent) that trail. Again, that can in part be attributed to the pair – certainly in Aouar’s case – nominally playing higher up the pitch more often, but it’s fair to say neither play vertical passes particularly frequently.
Granit Xhaka’s figure (27.9 per cent) is slightly higher from more of a sitting role in the Arsenal engine room, but Partey’s is huge by comparison (34.9 per cent). Indeed, there is a perception of the Ghanaian, perhaps because of his physical strength and the fact that he plays in a Diego Simeone side, that he is a defensive player, but that isn’t really the case.
One of Partey’s greatest strengths is his ability to break opposition lines with a forward pass or a direct dribble. Therefore, while the 27-year-old’s pass accuracy may seem concerning, he tends to take more risks in an attempt to add attacking impetus from deep, which is not something one would really say of Xhaka, for example.
That brings us on nicely to the dribbling statistics of the four in focus, and again the numbers need some closer assessment. Both Arsenal midfielder’s boast pretty solid if unspectacular dribble success rates, with Xhaka’s inferior figure for dribbles per 90 compared to Ceballos (0.9 to 1.4) somewhat offset by a superior success rate (78.1 per cent to 75 per cent).
This is an area where one might expect Aouar to come into his own, and on the face of it he does. An average of 3 successful dribbles per 90 last season is very high and feeds into his reputation as a strong ball carrier. It’s not to say he isn’t, but the 22-year-old’s number comes at a cost. Indeed, a dribble success rate of just 59.8 per cent is modest at best, even if one would expect that to improve with age.
Step forward Thomas Partey, who completed a strong average of 2 dribbles per 90 last season – higher than the current Arsenal pair – at an unmatched success rate. It’s a statistic that has certainly done the rounds, but Partey’s dribble success rate of 89.1 per cent is nothing short of outstanding. It’s a number that Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic and new Liverpool star Thiago Alcantara came closest to matching across Europe’s top five leagues last season.
While this comparison wasn’t an exercise to squash Arsenal’s need for a player like Houssem Aouar, who importantly has age and versatility on his side, there can be very little doubt as to which of the club’s targets should be viewed as the priority. Aouar’s WhoScored.com rating of 7.02 in the league last season was stronger than that of the current Arsenal pair, but Ceballos’ score, in particular, is not far off when excluding substitute appearances, rising from 6.84 to 6.99.
The young France international is a player that would undoubtedly improve Arsenal’s squad, but perhaps not transform it. By contrast, Thomas Partey could do just that. His physicality and progressive nature in possession are what the current Gunners midfield lacks and therefore makes the club’s interest extremely logical.
In truth, Partey would be a logical addition to most teams in the world. He isn’t faultless, committing more individual errors and falling foul of the referee more than one would like – but where Xhaka also falls into those traps – the Atletico star’s strengths far outweigh his weaknesses.
While Aouar is arguably a potential elite-level player, Partey is exactly that in his position, and for that reason, if Arsenal do manage to acquire the funds they need to activate his release clause, they should and surely would do so without hesitation.