Granit Xhaka may have played his last game of 2021.
An exact time frame has yet to be put on his return following the knee ligament injury he picked up against Tottenham on Sunday, but Arsenal say the midfielder will be out for ‘approximately three months’.
Should that be the case, then the 28-year-old could miss up to 18 Premier League games which accounts to almost half of the 2021-22 season.
Xhaka is a hugely divisive figure amongst the Arsenal fanbase, with supporters having grown frustrated by his tendency to make some high-profile errors and to lose his head in crucial moments.
But while he has made his fair share of mistakes, there is no doubt that he remains a crucial player for the Gunners and for Mikel Arteta.
Since arriving at the club in 2016, Arsenal have won 84 of their 165 Premier League games with Xhaka in the side. That is a win percentage of 50.9 per cent. Their win percentage without the Switzerland international, however, is just 45.2%.
Arsenal’s average goals for with Xhaka is 1.8 per game, while it is a lowly 1.2 when he is not involved. They also concede less when Xhaka features, letting in an average of 1.2 goals per game with him and 1.4 without.
So the stats show that Arsenal are a better team with Xhaka; their average points per game with the midfielder is 1.7 and when he is on the sidelines it is just 1.5.
Despite all that, there are plenty of Arsenal fans who have been desperate to see how the team performs without Xhaka in the heart of the midfield and they are now about to get their wish.
So what could Arteta do in his absence?
Sambi’s big opportunity?
The obvious choice to fill in for Xhaka would be summer signing Albert Sambi Lokonga.
The 21-year-old has made a big impression since arriving from Anderlecht and was one of the few bright spots during Arsenal’s miserable start to the season which saw them lose their opening three league games.
Thomas Partey’s return to fitness has seen Lokonga take a bit of a back seat in recent weeks, although he did come on as a substitute in the games against Burnley and Tottenham after he was left out of the starting XI.
He has shown already this season that he is more than capable of impressing in the Premier League, despite his relative lack of experience at the top level.
One of the big questions, however, is whether Lokonga and Partey would make a strong midfield partnership.
The general consensus is that Lokonga was brought in to initially provide cover for Partey when he was unavailable, rather than to play alongside him, and that he might not be best suited to playing with the Ghana international.
They did start together in the EFL Cup win against AFC Wimbledon, but have yet to do so in the Premier League.
It could be that we see that partnership trialed for the first time in the top flight at Brighton on Saturday.
A permanent switch to 4-3-3
This is a formation we have seen Arteta turn to in recent weeks.
Having withdrawn Lokonga in the second half of the game against Norwich, he switched to a 4-3-3, with Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe operating either side of Partey in midfield.
That allowed Arteta to use Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka as his wingers behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It was a tactical tweak that led to Arsenal winning the game and it was a formation Arteta then used from the start against Burnley in the following Premier League game while Xhaka was suspended.
Arsenal won that game as well thanks to Odegaard’s free-kick and while Arteta reverted to his more accustomed 4-2-3-1 against Spurs last weekend, the 4-3-3 system has shown to be an option that can bring results.
Whether Arteta would risk it against one of the league’s top sides, however, remains to be seen as it would put a lot of pressure on Partey as the only defensive-minded player in front of the back four.
The back-up options
Arteta is a manager who has placed a lot of trust in Mohamed Elneny in the past and the Egyptian is an option again.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles will also come into the equation, with Arteta having opted to keep hold of the England international in the summer despite a bid from Everton to take him to Goodison Park.
“Ainsley is certainly one of the options,” Arteta said, when asked whether the 24-year-old was in pole position to replace Xhaka at Brighton.
“We have used him quite a lot since the start of the season, he is doing really well and I am pleased with what I have seen from him.”
Given what we saw last season, however, Elneny could be ahead of Maitland-Niles in Arteta’s pecking order, with the 29-year-old having made 17 Premier League starts during the 2020-21 campaign, compared to Maitland-Niles’ five.
Of all of Arteta’s options, Elneny possibly has the most similarities to Xhaka in terms of how he likes to drop deep and receive the ball from the back.
But his preference to move the ball sideways rather than forwards can be a source of frustration, not just to the Arsenal fans but also his team-mates.
Arsenal’s team is already packed full of exciting young talent, but there is one youngster who has yet to be handed his senior debut.
Charlie Patino has been knocking on the door all season with his impressive performances for the Under-23s and was expected to feature in the Carabao Cup game against AFC Wimbledon.
“He was very close,” Arteta explained when asked after the Norwich game why Patino had been left out. “We decided as well that some players needed minutes. It will happen naturally in time.
“Charlie has been good, he’s trained more and more with us and played a practice game at Colney and he was really good. Again, give him time and we will prepare him.”
Patino is a midfielder who loves to get on the ball and play it from deep, like Xhaka, and he is also left footed.
But given Arteta didn’t deem the teenager ready to feature against AFC Wimbledon, it remains highly unlikely that he will throw him into the deep end now as cover for Xhaka’s injury.
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