Yesterday we blogged about how a new midfielder – and more specifically a defensive midfielder – should be top of our transfer list.
In the blog, we discussed about how the likes of Youri Tielemans and Sergej Milinković-Savić do not need to be mentioned in the discussion. Neither are defensive midfielders.
But in discussing the blog, some did make the case that we should be looking to recruit a new 8, as well as a defensive midfielder. And that would open the door to someone like Tielemans.
But do Arsenal need a new 8?
Granit Xhaka going nowhere
After a rollercoaster of an Arsenal career, it finally feels like Xhaka has become the player we all hoped (or at least me).
I remember when we signed him, I predicted that Xhaka was everything we hoped Jack Wilshere would become.
Xhaka was just 24, had a wand of a left foot, and combined aggression in defence with a wand of a left foot.
He and Wilshere were both born in 1992, and as Xhaka joined, Wilshere was being sent out to Bournemouth to try and resurrect a career blighted by injury.
My prediction also included that Xhaka would captain us for many years to come.
He may no longer wear the armband, but it is clear he is a leader on and off the pitch. You don’t need a (c) by your name to be a captain.
This season, in the more advanced 8 position, Xhaka has been exceptional.
Some will argue he was never really an out and out defensive midfielder.
His best performances for his country always came in a more advanced position – with Denis Zakaria in behind him.
The days of him being almost out the door to Roma (for F all money) are long gone. Xhaka is now one of the first names on the team sheet.
But he is now the wrong side of 30
Xhaka will turn 31 at the start of next season.
Whilst we do not really need to be discussing replacing him as a matter of urgency, we will need to look at this down the line.
He has 2 years left on his current deal, with Arsenal having an option to extend for a further year.
There is little evidence that he is on the decline, and is actually playing the best football he ever has. You would expect him to be able to keep up this level of performance for another 18 months.
That would take him to the end of his current contract, at which point we extend in by the year.
That same summer is when we should probably consider “going big” and signing his longer term replacement.
We would then have a year of Xhaka, with his experience, playing in competition with a younger team mate, with the torch being passed as the season progresses.
As with the Thomas Partey discussion, this would be smart succession planning.
There is just no rush to even buy him cover right now.
3 into 2 goes, but 4 is 1 too many
Last summer we signed Fabio Vieira.
The Portuguese midfielder has shown glimpses of his ability, and the hope is he will come back from the winter World Cup break a new man.
Vieira is our “like for like” replacement for Martin Odegaard. But in turn is also the cover for Xhaka.
As we move into the second half of the season, I expect Vieira to get more game time. I would also like to see Mikel Arteta to pick him alongside Odegaard against “lesser” teams where we do not need that extra bit of defensive cover Xhaka provides.
So if we agree that we already have 3 top 8s for 2 positions, do we really need a 4th?
3 into 2 goes, but I’m not sure 4 into 2 does.
Lokonga, Smith Rowe and Patino
Albert Sambi Lokonga is not an out and out defensive midfielder.
For the rest of this season, I expect him to be the 4th option behind Odegaard, Xhaka and Vieira. He will get the opportunity to show he is a long term solution there.
We also have Emile Smith Rowe – who I have always thought would suit playing more centrally.
ESR has fabulous technique in tight positions and drifts into the box to score like a prime Aaron Ramsey.
When he has played more centrally for Arsenal, he has struggled (think Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup last season). But from memory he has never played centrally with Thomas Partey behind him – it has often been Lokonga.
Playing more centrally would also protect his fragile body a bit more – his injuries have all been muscle related, and playing on the wing he needs to be explosive. In the middle Smith Rowe would not need to show that initial burst of pace, which strains his body, as often.
Moving into next season, we also have Charlie Patino.
I do not expect him to leave us in the summer – he might have even signed his new contract by the time this is published.
Patino is clearly a talented kid, and the loan at Blackpool has seen him kick on further.
If Lokonga doesn’t do it this season, Patino will certainly get his chance next.
And in 2024, when Xhaka will be turning 32, Patino will be just coming up to his 21st Birthday.
If he has continued to kick on, then it wouldn’t be too hard to foresee that torch being passed from Xhaka to Patino as the 2024/25 season progresses.
But should we miss the chance of Tielemans on a free?
Like many, Tielemans came into my radar as a teenager whilst playing for Anderlecht.
In 2014, he was the best player on the pitch as Anderlecht drew 3-3 in North London. He was just 17. That night he faced a certain Mikel Arteta in midfield.
I was disappointed that we did not sign him in 2017 when he joined Monaco. And that disappointment was double downed on in 2019 when he joined Leicester City.
He has the ability, technique and experience to play for any team in the Premier League. And he is still just 25.
Those who question his work rate are being unfair. They base this on a single moment where a referee sprinted past him whilst he jogged.
This season he has played deeper for Leicester, putting in more defensive work than ever before. And much of his career at Anderlecht and Monaco was played as a central midfielder rather than attacking.
It must be said that for a 25-year-old, he has a lot of miles on the clock. By the end of the season he would have passed through 500 games for club and country.
That being said, he has never really suffered any persistent injuries.
I have spoken about looking at replacing Xhaka in 2024, but should we really pass on the chance of signing Tielemans – for free – in 2023?
Ok, it might be a year earlier than we wanted, but with Champions League football there will be enough games to go around.
And on Tielemans we know what we are getting. And the longer term replacement for Xhaka will be in place.
The issue with Lokonga, Smith Rowe and Patino is they may never grow into a replacement for Xhaka, whilst we know Tielemans is good enough.
And as for Patino, he is still just 19. Signing Tielemans would allow him to go on loan to a Premier League side for 2023/24 and continuing his development.
He then returns in 2024, a few months shy of 21, to be Tielemans cover. Give it another year and he’d be Tielemans competition.
Come 2027, Tielemans would be 30, and probably declining due to the amount of games he has played. Patino would then be 24 and ready to be the main man!
So what do you think? Should we move for Tielemans in the summer?