Why I Prefer Bissouma Over Locatelli by AI
The Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli is a pretty good central midfielder but I believe he is not more of what we need over Bissouma. In terms of how he’s used and the spaces he occupies at Sassuolo, he’s pretty much identical to Xhaka, which is a good thing. But we have a specific system here, a goal to maximize the team’s potential and a need to reach that goal as quickly as possible. Basically, we need to increase the overall potential and quality of how we play.
Look at how Ole’s system at United gradually looked better with better players. A similar thing is about to occur with Arteta’s Arsenal but we need to be careful and thoughtful about who we sign at this point. You can have many good players who can perform similar roles well for the same team but don’t max out the potential of that team at the same levels. Generally, most of our rumoured transfer targets improve us but they don’t improve us at the same levels. And that is the case of Manuel Locatelli.
Ordinarily, Locatelli is a pretty good/amazing like for like replacement for Xhaka in a pivot beside Partey (context is ‘pivot’). But that is a basic pattern of thinking that might lead us to a good but limiting player for the potential of our football. When we are in settled possession, Xhaka plays a LCM/LCB role for us, covering the space that Tierney leaves behind when he pushes high. In this role, Xhaka is meant to:
—Step out to win duels, headers and intercept opposition play/passes.
—Find advanced players with the ball at his feet or recycle it.
Xhaka is excellent at doing these. He mostly mops up whatever comes his way and distributes the ball impressively well.
Where is his midfield partner, Partey, in all this? Partey plays as a kind of lone 6 in the middle of the pitch. His job is to:
—Attract opposition players centrally to himself as the build up goes wide.
—Come short for the ball when building up wide is not possible or receive after.
—Find players in between the lines with progressive passing or recycle the ball or switch play.
—Delay counters/win duels/etc.
Basically, both Xhaka and Partey have extremely sensitive jobs in possession and out of possession. Sometimes, the role switches and Partey gets to play Xhaka’s role, but on the right, while Xhaka plays Partey’s central role. This is visible when we are attacking through the right with Odegaard, Saka, Chambers. Basically, we use a wide overload on each side of the pitch with as many as 5 players combining to find a free man.
Because we have Tierney on the left, Saka and Odegaard on the right, you’ll have seen our bias for either sides switch. Heavy left bias with Tierney and Smith-Rowe/Martinelli playing as wingers and the opposite when Odegaard is on the pitch. Changes depending on who we have.
So you could say that Arteta needs extremely capable midfielders who are progressive passers in possession and dominant out of it as his pivots (when we are attacking). Both Xhaka and Partey fit into this description. Xhaka is excellent defensively when the ball is ahead of him. The profile is that of a competent deep-lying playmaker in possession and a good defensive midfielder out of it.
Locatelli fits only one of this description. Xhaka’s defensive game in Arteta’s system is close to incredible. He’s so good at reading play, winning headers and intercepting passes when the ball is ahead of him. Locatelli does not provide the same level of dominance at winning duels on the ground and in the air with the ball ahead of him. Xhaka is not a pure 6 who can defend large spaces but if you give him a portion of space to protect he becomes a very good defender. This is a key aspect of good positional play. Defending is easier when you have only a small portion of space assigned for you to defend. You can anticipate better. Even if you are not normally a good defender. Cryuff has a famous quote on it.
The essence is that Locatelli is not as good a defender as Xhaka is. In fact, I’d say that Xhaka is so good at defending his assigned zone that Locatelli will be a considerable drop-off in defensive quality. That does not mean that Locatelli will be a stripper, however it means that we will struggle to keep teams pegged back when it’s Locatelli trying to prevent Zaha from tearing through his zone rather than Xhaka.
So Locatelli is basically having a technician trying to prevent a counter, except that he isn’t even much better than Xhaka in possession. So we lose a significant part of our ability to peg teams back while only adding a marginal gain at most to what Xhaka already gives us in possession. The difference in value provided by Locatelli to our system is therefore a net negative.
Imagine Locatelli in the 3-3 game at West Ham. The comeback becomes that much more difficult because while we are chasing a goal, we will still lose the ball and then have to deal with the physical monsters that West Ham have on the counter. Xhaka’s qualities mitigate that better.
Also, Partey’s instincts is to act more like an aggressive playmaker. With a primary playmaker like Locatelli in the side, it becomes a question of extracting the best value from our midfielders. Partey’s passing is very aggressive and quality. Do we want to temper that for Locatelli’s?
Someone like Bissouma who’s on our list of targets takes our ability to pin teams back to another level while offering a decent level of playmaking. Let no one deceive you; Yves Bissouma is a good passer of the ball, too. He’s no Locatelli but he can do the job well.
The ultimate dream is to have all of Lokonga, Partey, Locatelli and Bissouma. Gives us multiple options and fulfills the potential of our system. But that’s a dream that won’t happen for now. Bissouma (or a good duel-winner who can also pick a pass) is more of a net positive.
If we can somehow get a great deep playmaker who is also a great defender at the same time, we are going to do very well. But there are not many of them. (Partey, Frenkie De Jong, Camavinga, Rodri and that’s it). Ultimately, we need to choose between a slightly better playmaker or defender.
Locatelli and Bissouma represent either side of the option. And I am of the opinion that we are better off with the defensive option as he’ll helps us sustain pressure better.