Granit Xhaka should lose starting spot given woeful recent form for Arsenal
Last season, Granit Xhaka was the subject of some unfair criticism. A hefty price tag brought inflated expectations, while pundits and referees alike seemed to have the knives out for Arsenal's signing of the Switzerland international. This season, any such criticism would be justified. After improving across the course of 2016-17, Xhaka has hit a run of disastrous form; as such, Arsene Wenger should look to reshuffle his midfield options and give the midfielder a necessary reality check.
When he first arrived in England, Xhaka looked some way off the pace. That's only to be expected as the Premier League is notoriously difficult for new arrivals. Xhaka also had to learn to tame his temper to avoid unnecessary bookings. However, he did steadily improve. With Santi Cazorla ruled out for the majority of the campaign, Xhaka slowly established himself as the fulcrum of the Arsenal midfield. His distribution became as essential part of Arsenal's style, particularly when Wenger switched to a back three.
Xhaka retains an uncanny ability to pick the wing-backs out from deep positions, too: Mesut Ozil might be the man most frequently cited as Arsenal's "playmaker" but when Arsenal purr, it is often Xhaka who makes them tick.
Yet that hasn't happened often enough this season. Xhaka's passing has been wayward and his defending less diligent. He has actually managed to collect a few assists but those are merely masking the deficiencies in his game. Arsenal need an all-rounder, not a pure creator.
In the first few games of the season, his carelessness proved particularly costly: it seemed that every time he gave the ball away, the opposition would break away and score. Those moments have been the obvious aberrations, but in truth Xhaka has fallen well short of the expected standard since the season began.
Maybe this is simply a case of "second season syndrome." It's possible that Xhaka's opponents have now worked out his weaknesses and are exploiting them with ease. There certainly are flaws to Xhaka's style, and they've come into sharp focus of late. He is not particularly athletic, and his one-footedness means he has a huge turning circle. When the opposition close him down quickly, he struggles. What's more, for a player who starts as a defensive midfielder, he's not much of a defender.
However, opponents' increasing familiarity with Xhaka's traits is no excuse for what he produced against Watford Vicarage Road. In the final minutes of the game, Xhaka went to pieces. As soon as the hosts scored their equaliser, his head dropped -- so too did his effort levels. When the ball ricocheted around the area in stoppage time before being dispatched by Tom Cleverely, Xhaka was stood on the edge of the box watching. Not only had he failed to follow his man: he'd slowed to a complete stand-still.
That kind of play is unacceptable and Wenger needs to respond appropriately by dropping him from the first XI. He was most likely scheduled to miss the match against Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League. Perhaps he should instead be tasked with travelling to Serbia, before being left out of the Premier League clash with Everton.
Xhaka's sloppiness is symptomatic of the lack of accountability at Arsenal. Having established himself as a regular first-teamer, he plays as if his performances have little bearing on his selection. Wenger can not allow that to persist. He needs to try and foster an environment in which players take responsibility for their actions on the field and if they fail, they pay the price with their place in the starting XI.
The issue for Wenger is that none of the alternatives to Xhaka seem particularly exciting. Mohamed Elneny is a steady but limited player while Francis Coquelin's erratic performances have seen him relegated to little more than a squad player. This could instead be the time to turn to Jack Wilshere, who has shown some promise in his run-outs this season.
Wilshere might be every bit as one-footed as Xhaka, but at least he seems to playing with some hunger. Perhaps some time on the bench is just what's required to inspire Xhaka to up his application.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.