When Arsenal take on Crystal Palace at the Emirates this evening, Mikel Arteta will have to make a big selection call.
Thomas Partey has returned to first-team training and Gunners fans will no doubt be keen to see their summer signing get back on the pitch but rather than the Ghana international, it’s Granit Xhaka who is arguably more important and thus, he needs to start.
Xhaka’s influence on this Arsenal side was so clear to see in the Gunners’ FA Cup third round triumph over Newcastle last time out. The Switzerland international started the game on the bench, and they toiled away, failing to create an opening.
And then, when the midfielder was brought on, Arsenal began stitching things together in the middle of the park. As per Sofascore, he completed 22 more passes than the man he replaced in the second-half Joe Willock, despite playing ten fewer minutes.
Xhaka came on and gave control of the game to Arsenal, whilst he proved that he is also getting more defensively disciplined by winning six duels – Willock won the same amount, but he contested three more duels than the Swiss ace (15 to 12).
Arsenal improved when he came on and the Gunners ran out 2-0 winners, with the 28-year-old playing a pivotal role in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal when he slipped through Kieran Tierney for the eventual assist.
Described as a “natural leader” by Arteta, the Gunners boss also hailed the £35m man’s attitude, saying: “(The other players) need to have the personality and work rate that he has. The courage to face their problems and slowly knock down that wall and start to enjoy this profession the way he deserves.”
And that’s something Arsenal’s former scout, Francis Cagigao, further raved about to the The Athletic, declaring: “First and foremost, you saw his passing ability. Then his character. When I say ‘character’, it’s the fact that he always wants the ball. He’s extremely brave, he never hides. Even in moments when his team are under the cosh and a lot of players won’t accept responsibility, he always will.”
Against Palace tonight, with the Gunners searching for a fourth successive win in the Premier League, they will need every bit of that character.
The north London side have already been hurt by the Eagles before at the Emirates when things were going well – who can ever forget when Wilfried Zaha embarrassed them and saw the Gunners spiral out of top four contention under Unai Emery a couple of years ago? In fact, Arsenal haven’t beaten Palace in their last four meetings between the two sides, so they’ve become a bit of a bogey team as well in recent times.
The Gunners can’t risk something like that again, especially when they’ve just hit a good run of form. It’s exactly why more than the returning Partey, Arteta must start his “natural leader” so that the north London side have a better chance of taking home all three points.
Whilst Partey’s time will come, dropping him straight back in at this point in time would be a big risk, so Arteta should go with his hot hand and select Xhaka from the off.