Gunner Thoughts

Xhaka v. Ceballos: Boom or bust, or steady-Eddie

Arsenal are prepping themselves to take on Crystal Palace with an opportunity to win four straight Premier League matches, which of these two will get the call if Partey plays?

Arsenal are prepping themselves to take on Crystal Palace with an opportunity to win four straight Premier League matches and five straight in all competitions.

Arsenal never managed four straight Premier League wins in the 2019/20 season. In fact to find four League wins in a row, you would have to go back to that incredible, early run from Unai in late-August through September of the 2018/19 season in which Arsenal won 7 straight and went 14 matches unbeaten. So, the current side is a long way from reaching that 14 match mark, but the Gunners will be taking it one match at a time.

To get to the four in a row mark, there are a few lineup decision that Arteta may have to navigate. A major one that people will be keeping eyes on, is Mari or Gabriel. With Rob Holding signing his new contract, Gabriel winning multiple Player of the Month awards, and Mari being as solid as they come these last few games, the decision doesn’t seem as straight forward as it may have a few weeks ago.

One doesn’t imagine Arteta will look to two left-footed center backs if he doesn’t have to, which makes that left-center back battle very intriguing.

Possibly more interesting may be the choice between Xhaka and Ceballos, the two center midfielders that have seemingly stood out in recent matches, should Thomas Partey return. In yesterday’s team news, Arsenal gave us a positive update on Partey:

“Thomas is now back in full training with the squad after recovering from an injury to the left thigh. Thomas continues to regain full fitness and will be assessed ahead of Thursday’s match.”

His reintroduction may not be in the form of an immediate start, especially after re-injuring himself after being rushed out, however Arsenal have been much more cautious him this time around. We can’t know for sure what his day-to-day prognosis is like, but leaving him out of the Newcastle match for a few extra days of work and rest seems like an example of lessons learned. While it makes the ‘will he-won’t he start‘ answer a bit murkier, it’s fair to assume we are on the cusp of his return.

So, who partners him?

Recently, I wrote an article about Arsenal’s need to lockdown their midfield carousel. The inconsistent nature of Arsenal’s midfield this season has been clear, and not necessarily for the positive reasons that can be associated with rotation.

Rather than altering the midfield because Arteta has an array of skilled options that run the gamut of expertises, allowing Mikel to surgically insert his perfect player-tool to dissect opposition, Arsenal’s rotation has been bred from a lack of results, injury, and suspension. Throughout the season, the inconsistencies of the midfield’s performance — more specifically the pivot’s — has been a real pain point. Partey’s return offers the opportunity to plug in a game-changing star, but who plays with him?

Of the three most likely options — Elneny, Ceballos, and Xhaka — there is a very real chance that none of them have a future with the club beyond this season, which makes long-term plans a non-factor. Instead, it’s about the here and now.

Elneny has played a great role in Arsenal’s season so far, but lately has struggled to assert himself in the midfield with much affect, which likely puts him third in the pecking order on current form. He got a start against Newcastle in the FA Cup, but cup games may be where he is used for much of the remaining season.

The debate between Xhaka and Ceballos, for me, comes down to form vs. potential. It’s been a battle that has surrounded Ceballos’ career where he has shown himself to be a ‘boom or bust’ midfielder.

You can point to charts like these…

A graph of the progressive carrying of midfielders.

…or the stat lines that showed him as one of the top midfielders in the Premier League after the lockdown, and it shows the quality he is capable of producing.

To show his ceiling of potential, a person can point to performances like his West Brom appearance where he tallied:

  • 1 shot
  • 3 created chances
  • 7/10 long balls
  • 3 key passes
  • 7/9 duels won
  • 1/1 dribble
  • 3 tackles (most in the match)
  • 7 interceptions (League high)
  • 7 recoveries

He was an understated star in that match and deserves every bit of praise that comes his way. But for every boom, there has been a bust that sees him lose his spot and struggle to find consistency.

If Ceballos is ‘boom or bust’, then Xhaka is steady-Eddie, almost to a fault. At his best, Xhaka’s consistent, balanced play shows itself similar to the form of his recent performances. Versus Newcastle, Xhaka came into the game and was a supporting difference-maker. With Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Lacazette, Tierney, and Aubameyang in front of him in the attack, having that supportive supply from the midfield makes a huge difference. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s steady play can manifest itself in the form of caution that sees Arsenal’s possession retained through stagnant, side-to-side passing.

Xhaka’s top passing combinations versus Chelsea? Tierney and Smith Rowe. Xhaka’s top passing combinations versus Brighton? Tierney and Pablo Mari.

Which match did Arsenal struggle to get things going against? Brighton! Yes, Brighton makes things difficult in their own way with their mid-block, but Xhaka’s intent versus Chelsea to be positive with his possession and drive the team forward is a huge difference maker.

The truth is, the answer to Xhaka or Ceballos may reach a point where the opposition plays a large role in that selection, which would be an ideal state. Two players that consistently offer you their best, deployed entirely baed on Arsenal’s needs? Seems like a dream come true, but this first selection may go a long way to suggesting who gets the call more frequently, and who is given the spot until they lose it.

Obviously, training sessions in which Arteta and his staff will have watched these two play alongside Partey goes a long way, but we don’t really have access to that, so my assessment comes from what we do get access to — matches.

Long have I been a proponent of the idea that Ceballos could be one of Arsenal’s keys to success this season. We saw what he is capable of at the end of last season, and saw it once more against West Brom, but to keep this run of form going, Arteta needs to stick with those that are giving him what he needs now. Because of that, Xhaka should retain his place until he loses it.

Ceballos will get his chances, it’s not the end of his Arsenal season, but having a consistent presence paired with Partey while he gets his legs under him and settled in, despite being in London since October, seems the way to go.

Crystal Palace awaits, and hopefully three more points for Arsenal!

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