The £53m midfielder who can supercharge Arsenal's Premier League title chase
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Arsenal's involvement in the Champions League this week wasn't limited to London - they also had representatives in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastián. Not that they would have had too much time to enjoy the sights of a city that's spectacular even by Spanish standards, because they were busy feasting their eyes on Real Sociedad's Martín Zubimendi.
This probably wasn't the first time that Arsenal had sent scouts to watch the twice-capped Spanish international strut his stuff. The Gunners were linked with a bid for the holding midfielder back in January, and while that move evidently never materialised, reports in various British outlets suggest that Mikel Arteta remains keen to raid his former club for one of their biggest talents.
That Arsenal are looking at Zubimendi is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it implies that Arteta may be losing some faith in his current system. When at full strength, Arsenal have played Kai Havertz ahead of Declan Rice, with Martin Ødegaard drifting into wider areas closer to Bukayo Saka - a very attacking set-up which has at times left them lacking in numbers and steel in midfield, although it has certainly helped them to dominate possession in plenty of games so far. A move for Zubimendi, however, would only be worthwhile if Arteta wanted to return to a more defensively sound double pivot.
Arteta has tried that in a few recent matches, but Jorginho hasn't really convinced so far this season and the other obvious candidate to play a more defensive role next to Rice, Thomas Partey, has been struggling with injury - he will miss the rest of the year and may even be a doubt for Ghana's Africa Cup of Nations campaign in January. Zubimendi's presence would change the way Arsenal looked to play in midfield completely.
Often compared to Sergio Busquets, Zubimendi is not an attack-minded player. He is an excellent tackler whose positioning and marking allow him to win possession back in central areas, and he has the stamina and work ethic to chase down opposing midfielder all day long - but he isn't the kind of player who looks to get forwards, preferring to let the ball do the work when he wins it back for his side.
Barcelona manager Xavi recently said of Zubimendi that "he is a more physical and faster player than Busquets, who is technically better," which is a pretty fair assessment - although it may oversell his pace slightly while also understating his technical qualities. Zubimendi is a fine passer with the vision and range to get the ball downfield quickly and accurately, and is far more than the kind of defensive midfielder who looks for simple sideways passes.
On paper, he could complement Rice's work rather well. While the England international likes to run with the ball and get forward, Zubimendi prefers to pass it upfield and cover danger areas in behind - his play would give Rice more license to get forward in that Beckenbauer-esque way of his without leaving holes in behind. Zubimendi also tends to stick to more central areas of the field compared to Rice, who is happier to drift slightly wider, especially down the left. The two players may essentially play in the same position, but they have different roles and each has strengths which should cover the others' relative weaknesses.
Of course, the scouting mission could have been strictly exploratory, an option for future reference - not that Arsenal are likely to have all that long to mull a move over. Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were all alleged to have scouts in attendance as well, not that everyone was necessarily there for Zubimendi, while both Real Madrid and Barcelona have been linked with a transfer bid in the past as well. The queue for his services is starting to look pretty long.
Which is why it is very likely that any buying club will need to spend enough to trigger the mandatory release clause in his contract, which is set at €60m (£52.5m). Sociedad know that they have a quality player tied down until 2027, and know that there will be plenty of takers for his services. They don't need to sell cheap, and won't, especially when they're in the middle of an exciting period which has seen them break into the top four in La Liga and now qualify for the Champions League knock-out rounds off the back of the 3-1 win over Benfica those Arsenal scouts will have just watched.
The question, then, is whether Arteta is sufficiently interested in switching up his system to splash all that cash on another defensive midfielder. It's about half of the price that the Gunners paid for Rice, of course, and by that standard it would be a bargain - but that doesn't make it cheap, and it would drain financial resources that could be used on a striker. But if Arsenal's head coach feels the need to change direction in order to strengthen Arsenal's title challenge, this looks like a pretty tough deal to argue against - and it's equally tough to argue that any team wouldn't benefit from having Zubimendi's toughness and talent in their squad.