Arsenal: Why Steven N’Zonzi makes the best Xhaka replacement

From Blackburn to Sevilla, the 29-year-old's career has been reinvigorated, but is he now making a return to the Premier League for Arsenal?


REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Arsenal have been heavily linked with Sevilla’s Steven N’Zonzi after manager Pablo Machin said he would be free to make the move to the North London club if Unai Emery triggered his £40 million release clause.

The 29-year-old would be the perfect replacement for Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, prone to reckless challenges and bouts of sub-par defending.

Playing with high profile players in a big team could be a good progression for me. We all know that the transfer window is open but we don’t talk about it that much. – Steven N’Zonzi

Despite a previous history in England between 2009 and 2015 with Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, the Frenchman truly garnered a reputation as a strong powerhouse in midfield after impressive performances with Sevilla, particularly in 2016/17.

N’Zonzi since the Premier League

In an interview with the Guardian, the 29-year-old spoke about how difficult it was for him to play in England during his spells with both Tony Pulis’ Stoke and Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn.

Due to his size, many perceive the Frenchman as a physical destroyer, a pure defensive midfielder, but N’Zonzi struggled to adapt to their physical style of play, labelling himself as more of a “passing player.”

Evidence regarding this comes from his final year at Stoke in 2014/15, where Mark Hughes brought a shift in playing style and N’Zonzi was their player of the season, flourishing in a more technical role.

Everyone has always seen me in that type of team and they think because I’m tall it was more my kind of play. But I think I was always more of a passing player. – N’Zonzi on his time in England.

When he finally moved away from the England to La Liga, this became more prominent, and he now thrives in a defensive midfield role for Sevilla, where he provides both defensive solidarity and instigates attacking movements. 

If Arsenal can utilise this -swapping a physical yet reckless player in Xhaka for a more technical one in N’Zonzi- their fortunes may just change in attempts to return to the Champions League.

The transformation

 N’Zonzi has slowly transformed in one of the best defensive midfielders in his league.

His ability to pick out inch-perfect passes, with an 88% passing accuracy, has made him a source of attacking potential in the centre of the pitch. He also boasts a good range of passing, making 2.1 long balls per game.

Yet, there is more to his game than playmaking. As a defensive midfielder, he possesses the stamina to track players in front of him, and break up counterattacks-in-the-making.

He is good in the air with 3.8 aerial duels won per game, which also makes him a risk for any opposition during dead ball situations.

Xhaka vs N’Zonzi

Whilst Xhaka may also have a presence in the centre of the pitch, this is where his similarities with the Sevilla midfielder end.

N’Zonzi has a clean disciplinary record, and does not have a proclivity to dive into tackles recklessly, yet in comparison, Xhaka has picked up nine red cards in three years, two as an Arsenal player.

If Emery signs N’Zonzi, he would be a welcome form of calmness and rationale in the centre of the midfield, balancing out Arsenal’s attacking style of play with his defensive stability. N’Zonzi is also faster than Xhaka and could therefore make more forward runs, whilst ensuring the space left in his wake is not exploited.

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

He has shown that he has an excellent understanding of the game, with superb tactical and spatial awareness, while Xhaka is prone to lapses in concentration that have cost Arsenal vital points in the past. 

It will benefit Arsenal to sign N’Zonzi, as his inclusion will provide them with the defensive stability that their midfield has been crying out for, and that Xhaka has failed to supply them with.

The Switzerland international should be replaced for the more stable, and intelligent midfielder, and if Arsenal go through with it, they may see a change in their fortunes come the start of next season.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group F in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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