Granit Xhaka not learning from his mistakes after latest Arsenal red card
Arsene Wenger sounded like a man whose patience is running out when discussing Granit Xhaka's latest red card after Sunday's dramatic 2-1 win over Burnley at the Emirates.
"He has to control his game and not punish the team with a lack of control in his tackling," Wenger said.
While Wenger's own lack of control was also in focus after he was sent to the stands and then pushed the fourth official, his frustration with Xhaka is easy to understand.
Some will argue that the midfielder's straight red for a two-footed tackle was harsh as he didn't make heavy contact with Steven Defour. But no one can argue with the fact that it was unnecessary, undisciplined and even downright stupid -- especially by a player who should have learned from previous mistakes by now.
This was the Switzerland international's second red card as a Gunner, his fifth in two seasons and ninth overall in three years.
Add the two clumsy penalties he's given away for Arsenal, and it's clear Wenger now faces a serious question when it comes to Xhaka for the rest of the season: do the midfielder's positive qualities outweigh his negative ones? Or is he too much of a liability to be trusted in important games?
After Xhaka's previous sending off against Swansea, Wenger expressed confidence that he wouldn't be a repeat offender despite his poor disciplinary track record.
"Intelligence means you don't make the same mistake twice, and I hope he learns from that," Wenger said then. "Sometimes he makes some clumsy tackles because he's not a natural defender, he is a guy who likes to go forward. But I will speak to him."
Clearly, Xhaka hasn't listened. In fact, in a recent interview with the Arsenal website, he said he wasn't even sure what the problem was.
"I've picked up quite a few yellow cards in the last few years, a few reds too. That was the case as a youth player as it is now," he said. "But I don't see it as a problem. That's how I play. If you take that away then I wouldn't be where I am now. So I don't think the yellow cards or the red cards are too big of an issue."
They are certainly becoming an issue. Xhaka will now miss Arsenal's next four games, including the crucial trip to Chelsea in two weeks. That leaves Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey as Arsenal's only two available central midfielders, and both of them have already struggled with injuries this season.
But it's not just a short-term problem. It's getting to the point where Wenger must be questioning if he can ever trust Xhaka fully, or whether he remains a constant risk to the team because of his rash decision making.
It's a shame because the 24-year-old had been looking more comfortable in the side lately and was doing more in every game to live up to his £30 million price tag after a summer transfer from Borussia Monchengladbach.
Xhaka is right when he says aggression must remain a part of his game -- after all, he was brought in to add steel and grit to the side, and Arsenal badly need someone like him in the middle of the pitch. But they also need him to stay on the pitch.
So far, Arsenal have only been truly punished by one of Xhaka's mistakes: the penalty that gave Bournemouth a 2-0 lead in the 3-3 away draw on Jan. 3. They overcame the 1-0 deficit to Stoke after the first penalty he gave away and won both games where he was sent off.
But against a top rival they may not be so lucky, which is why this must be the last chance for the Swiss to prove he can learn to control himself.
Xhaka still has the potential to be exactly the kind of midfield enforces Arsenal have been crying out for. His 2.7 tackles per Premier League game is on par with the more defensive-minded Coquelin, while his abilities as a deep-lying playmaker exceeds the Frenchman's as his pass completion of 89.4 percent shows.
And for all his disciplinary problems, he actually doesn't pick up that many bookings -- only three in 20 appearances this season. That's quite low for a holding midfielder (Coquelin has six in 19 games) and shows that Xhaka isn't a player who is constantly playing on the edge of what's allowed. Rather, he's someone who gets it right most of the time, but badly wrong every now and then.
That is perhaps easier to correct, but only if he acknowledges that it actually is something that needs correcting. Because there is no more room for reckless errors. Sometimes two strikes is all you get in football.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.