It’s that time of year: the days are getting longer, the nights are getting hotter, the Rhododendrons are blooming, and once again Arsenal are being linked to any midfielder over 6 foot tall who once put in a tackle. This year, that player is former Stoke City midfielder, Steven Nzonzi.
Nzonzi makes a certain sense for Arsenal because he’s both a decent midfielder and he’s a former Unai Emery player. Nzonzi will translate Emery’s tactics on the pitch, direct players, shield the back four, and keep the ball moving.
But Nzonzi wasn’t always this type of player. Back in 2010, Nzonzi was a 68% passer at Blackburn, where he averaged 2 tackles and 2 fouls every match. After a few years of progress, through Stoke, he was signed by Sevilla for £7m. But he was still seen as a backup to Krychowiak and it wasn’t until the Pole was injured that Nzonzi got his chance, once which he took with both hands.
Last season in the Champions League, Nzonzi completed 92% of his passes which is great but the key thing that people will usually complain about is that “most of his passes were sideways and backwards.” Yes, that’s true. Watch him for even a few minutes and you can see that he is a very cautious passer.
But don’t sleep on Nzonzi’s long passing. Xhaka is lauded as one of the best long-ball players in the Premier League and last season he connected on a whopping 188 long balls, 2 less than Alfie Mawson (who led the League for outfield players) and 4 more than Petr Cech!
Xhaka is a 66% long passer, completing 188/284 last season. Nzonzi was also a 67% long passer last season, but connected on far fewer, just 58/86. However, Nzonzi connected on 76% of his long passes in 2016/17, completing 159/210 in La Liga. He’s as good if not better than Xhaka at long passes.
You might also be tempted to suggest that Nzonzi doesn’t create for his teammates and again, there is a grain of truth to that. Last season he averaged just 0.5 key passes per game, that’s one shot created for a teammate every two games. But Xhaka’s assists and key passes numbers are inflated because he takes corners. Remove the corners and Xhaka had just 3 assists on 0.7 key passes per game. Nzonzi had 2 assists last season and 3 the season before. Exactly the same number as Xhaka had from open play.
Incidentally, both players scored just one goal in league play last season, and both goals were from distance (outside the 18). But Nzonzi took just 11 shots outside the box, where Xhaka took 58. When it comes to passing, Xhaka and Nzonzi offer almost exactly the same percentages. Xhaka currently passes a lot more often than Nzonzi but that will probably change for Steven, and his passing numbers go up, if he plays for Arsenal.
Where the two players diverge, however, is in duels: Nzonzi wins most of his duels, Xhaka does not.
As you can see from the chart, Nzonzi wins 80% of his duels, including headers, tackles, and dribbles. Xhaka wins less than 60% of his duels.
Neither player is an Idrissa Gueye or Ngolo Kante, they aren’t prolific ball winners but Xhaka does win the ball back more often (if at a lower percentage rate) than Nzonzi.
Of all the DMs I compared, Nzonzi attempted the fewest tackles (49) but was also only successfully dribbled past 10 times. Nzonzi won 80% of his tackles but was involved in less than 2 tackles per game. That could be happening because he’s recklessly out of position all the time (he’s not), or because opponents choose not to try to go through him.
In the two matches against Manchester United this season Nzonzi attempted just four tackles and was only dribbled once, by Paul Pogba. Pogba did complete 5 dribbles that day in and around the center circle, getting past Ever Banega and Sarabia twice each. Nzonzi wasn’t involved in those duels because he plays deeper than both of those players.
United’s main dribbling threats in the return leg were down the wings with Rashford and Alexis, giving Nzonzi little chance to get involved in a lot of tackles. Sevilla won that tie, knocking United out of the Champions League.
The one stat that should pop out to you is the number of aerial duels that Nzonzi won last season. He won 103 and only lost 24. Again, in the match against United, Nzonzi dominated the air against both Fellaini and Matic, winning 13 aerial duels over the two legs, and 7 in the head-to-head with Fellaini.
Nzonzi’s stats are kind of funny. Most of the time the DM will have a lot of tackles, or a lot of interceptions and blocked passes. But Nzonzi’s stats look more like a center back: winning a lot of headers, tackling rarely but efficiently, almost never being dribbled, and rarely getting dispossessed (13 times last season). He also looks like a cultured ball-circulator: someone who keeps the ball moving, but can also break the lines with a raking long ball, or play in a teammate with a throughball.
The picture that I think most Arsenal supporters have of Steven Nzonzi is from his first season at Stoke where he passed the ball just 82%, had 2 tackles a game, got 9 yellow cards and 1 red. But this is a player who seems to have learned from each of his stops on his long career and is now a commanding center mid who can pass as well as Xhaka.
Tim has been writing about Football for over 10 years at 7amkickoff.com. He likes long walks on the beach, puppy breath, and using data to shatter his own illusions about football.
Tim will be a regular contributor this season, writing twice weekly about the Arsenal.