Denis Zakaria; Scout Report. Adding Steel To Arsenal’s Midfield
For any team that wants to control the ball as much as Arteta wants his Arsenal team to do, the influence of the midfield is vitally important. Prevailing thought is that midfield is still a significant need for Arsenal.
Granit Xhaka as indispensable as he has been to Arsenal, is on the later side of his tenure at Arsenal, and its still not out of the realm of possibility that he could leave the Emirates fold this coming summer. Thomas Partey runs hot and cold for many and even by his own admission, he has struggled to come to grips with the demands of the Premier League.
Additionally, Arsenal are blessed with the rising talent of Albert Sambi Lokonga, but he is still relatively young and will have spells on the bench. The remaining names in that deep area of the midfield are all likely departures either this January or summer.
What Arsenal really lack in the midfield is solid defensive protection for the centerbacks. While Arsenal are much improved defensively, having someone who can absolutely lock down the midfield is necessary. Additionally, the team needs a midfielder who is a capable link from the back line to the attack.
Partey has the tools to do this but its not his best role. He is better suited to being a little freer in the midfield. Lokonga also could fill this roll, but the thought is he is a long-term replacement for Partey.
The Midfield Beast
One publication called him simply, the beast and standing at 6’3” and weighing in at 179 pounds, its easy to understand why he got that moniker. But just calling him the beast based on his physical stature belies that capable way in which he plays that defensive or holding midfielder role.
During his tenure at Borussia Möchengladbach, he excels regularly. When you look at his pure defensive stat, he stands out. Heading into last season he was averaging 3 tackles and interceptions per 90. As Bundesliga Daily said, “Gladbach’s defense looks infinitely better whenever he’s present in midfield.”
He has been compared to both Patrick Vieira and Paul Pogba and it is the way the player himself wants to play:
“I’ve been compared to [Patrick] Vieira and [Paul] Pogba – two more players I really respect and, in a way, see as role models. When I watch videos of them, I think I’d like to play that way.”
Others sing his praises like German footballing legend Lothar Matthaus.
“I’m glad that Gladbach have found another pearl. At his age I was earning my first stripes for Borussia. He reminds me of Toni Kroos at that age.”
Still for Arsenal supporters, it’s the comparison to Vieira that will perk everyone’s ears up. And when you watch him and you see the pace, the assertive way he plays the midfield, his tackling ability, and his quality passing, its not hard to wonder why.
Right away when you watch Zakaria a few things immediately jump out to you, especially in his 1v1 duels. First and probably surprising to many, especially for a player with his physique – is his pace. Short bursts or long distances, he is a very quick player.
When he initiates a 1v1 duel, whether from behind or front on, he is excellent at closing down the space between him and the attacker. This quick reaction limits the time the attacker must decide to either to pass or try and dribble forward.
The other attribute that comes right out when watching him is the assertive way he plays this role. One of the knocks on Granit Xhaka is that he is too aggressive and that leads to those moments where he either sees yellow or worse – red. For Zakaria that does not come across. The term assertive is used because he dictates the encounters and only seems to go to ground when it is necessary.
Defensively he is also a player who is extraordinarily strong intercepting, clearing, and winning the ball. This season alone he is averaging 3.62 interceptions per 90. He is successful at all this due to sound positional and in game awareness. Something that in the past has not been associated with Arsenal defensive midfielders.
He hardly ever looks too far pushed up or out of position. On the off chance he is caught too far up field, he has the pace to recover and get back into the position to provide cover to the center backs.
Statistically when it comes to his defensive profile, he rates high in the core attributes you want from a defensive midfielder. In his career when compared to the big 5 leagues and other midfielders he is averaging 2.15 blocks per 90 and 1.70 passes blocked per 90 (90th and 87th percentiles respectively.) He has been dribbled past only 0.82 per 90 and has tackled 44.2% of the dribblers he has faced (93rd and 89th percentiles).
Additionally, he is averaging 1.70 clearances per 90 and he has won 50% of the aerials he’s faced.
When taken collectively, the video analysis and statistical review, he looks to be a solid candidate to fit the long-lost defensive midfielder Arsenal have needed for some time. This is not an 8 that would be shoe-horned into that number 6 role. This is a player who is for all intents and purposes – a true 6.
When evaluating Zakaria, the focus was on his role as a defensive midfielder. So, we spent most of the time focusing on the defensive side of his game. It’s not that Zakaria does not have offensive qualities but his role as 6 is simple, win back possession or shield the back four and get the ball to the creators.
What that means is if you are looking for Zakaria to make the long diagonal balls you see from Xhaka and even Partey, they are not part of his game. His deep progressions are averaging 4.81 per 90 (48th percentile.) His most consistent passes are short passes either to the wide players – fullbacks or other midfielders – ranges from 5-7 yards. His xG buildup supports the effectiveness of his short passing ability where Zakaria is averaging 0.60 per 90 (77th percentile.)
If there is a critique to his game, its that in terms of creation of chances through passing, into the final third, it almost never comes off. Its not that his decisions are the wrong decisions, to the contrary, every smart pass we viewed on WYSCOUT, showed intelligence with the passing decision. What it did not have was the quality of the entry into the attacking zone.
One thing that is noticeable is his awareness of space. As we mentioned previously, he has got good positional sense, and this lends itself to the attacking phase of the game as he readily finds space in support of the player on the ball and makes himself available as an option.
As a team that wants to build up play having a player who understands space and can make themselves available to receive the ball either from the goalkeeper or centerbacks is essential. A critique made previously on this site is that none of our current crop of deep playing midfielders is effective at this and sometimes it prolongs the build up and can apply pressure on Ramsdale, White, and/or Gabriel.
Having a player like Zakaria who understands how to operate in this area, is essential to the further growth of this desired style of play. He may not have those attacking passes of Xhaka or Partey but that is not what he is needed for. He is needed to make that short quick connection to set the attack free and he is more than capable in that aspect.
Bringing Him to Arsenal
On Wednesday, news broke that Zakaria would not be signing a new contract at Möchengladbach. That means that this summer he is set to leave and go to the team that gives him the best deal. Zakaria’s quality is well respected, and he has been linked not only to Arsenal but to Dortmund, Liverpool, and Manchester United, among others.
Does that mean a player like Zakaria is unattainable for Arsenal? No. Challenging, yes. Still, if they were aggressive, they might be able to beat everyone else to the punch.
For starters, Arsenal could opt to feel out Möchengladbach and see if they would be interested in a deal in January. €7-10m should be enough to get it done. Of course, terms would have to be reached with the player and his agent but in normal year a player of Zakaria’s profile, his age and ability would see him draw in anywhere from €40-45m. The savings on that kind of deal could make the contract for the player sweeter.
Ever since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal, not year has gone by someone has not said “we never replaced Vieira.” While Zakaria may not have the goals Vieira had, he certainly has everything else. He is a sound player with the right age profile to supplement the current make up of the squad.
Zakaria could give Arsenal the steel in the midfield they miss along with the technical ability to progress the ball through the thirds effectively and better use the midfield as part of the attack in the initial phase of play.
The Swiss international would be a smart get for Arsenal and if they were bold in January and sign him, they’d be able to focus on the need for a striker this summer.