Arsenal must opt for Xhaka & Sambi Lokonga in midfield pivot

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Albert Sambi Lokonga of Arsenal during the Pre Season Friendly between Arsenal and Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on August 1, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Albert Sambi Lokonga of Arsenal during the Pre Season Friendly between Arsenal and Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on August 1, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) /

When Thomas Partey limped from the field in the first half of the 2-1 Mind Series defeat against Chelsea, alarm bells began ringing. With the Arsenal midfield dominator now sidelined for at least three to four weeks, only Granit Xhaka and Albert Sambi Lokonga are the logical choices for Mikel Arteta.

If there are no new arrivals in the week – which would be a disaster – a Xhaka/Lokonga double pivot is Arsenal’s best option for the start of the league campaign.

Having Xhaka feature from the off will make many Arsenal fans cringe – but the fact is he is needed, and badly. Although many dislike the Swiss international for a variety of reasons, he has proven to be a reliable performer, albeit with the uncanny ability to produce horror moments.

But what he does provide is the ability to distribute and progress the ball, often dropping into the space left by the rampaging Kieran Tierney in between centre-back and left-back. Xhaka is effective on the ball and offers some stability and reliability when Arsenal is in possession.

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However, those traits alone won’t win matches and that is where Lokonga comes into the equation. Built in a similar mold to Partey, the Belgian could (and should) be handed his first Premier League start against Brentford on the opening day.

Much like the former Atletico Madrid man, Lokonga boasts No. 6 capabilities with more familiar box-to-box traits. His tackling ability, defensive intelligence, proactive approach and physical attributes make him the perfect partner for Xhaka, although in an ideal world it would be Partey.

Lokonga is also superb at reading the game and has a knack for sniffing out any danger between the lines. He’s surprised a few with his visionary execution of pass, much like the divine ball played through for Nicolas Pepe prior to Joe Willock’s ghost goal against the Blues. Being partnered with Xhaka, Sambi will largely be responsible for much of Arsenal’s drive through the middle of the park.

Likened to former Gunner Abou Diaby – it seems that it’s never too soon for comparisons – the 21-year-old has neat dribbling ability to drift beyond opposing players and his aforementioned range of pass demonstrates what he can do when he lifts his head up. With Partey absent, it will be that kind of distribution that will be vital for Arsenal to stay afloat until the Ghanaian returns.

On top of that, one of Lokonga’s best attributes is how versatile he is. More often than not he will be deployed as a central midfielder by Arteta but his game isn’t tied to a certain formation and, as we know, Arteta likes to use several different shapes in-game.

By having Xhaka who is the defensive, reliable ball player, and Sambi to inherit the ‘Partey’ role and have more of an impact going forward, it seems like the best solution going. Having impressed throughout his smattering of minutes in pre-season, it is anything but catastrophic to have Sambi be handed his English top-flight baptism nice and early.

What would be ideal is to deploy both Xhaka and Lokonga against Tottenham in the second Mind Series match as a litmus test to the August 13 curtain-raiser. This will give the pair at least one full half together to get a feel for the partnership, and to allow Arteta to adequately assess.

In an ideal world, Partey, who has looked sharp all summer, would line up in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. However, as things have turned out, it very well could be an Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny duo to opening the season. That is utterly terrifying.

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That pairing will not end well, nor will it inspire, as both have severe unavoidable deficiencies. Yet with the right partner, Xhaka can have the strong performances Arsenal so desperately need him to produce. Is Lokonga the player to do that? With essentially only Elneny as the other option, he really has to be, doesn’t he?