Granit Xhaka under pressure as Arsenal fans' clamour for Lucas Torreira grows
It would be unfair to condemn a player usually so tidy in his passing for a lapse in that department, but Granit Xhaka's accidental contribution to Cardiff's first goal in Sunday's 3-2 win for Arsenal nevertheless added to the growing belief that he has run out of chances in the first team.
There are many reasons to be frustrated by Xhaka but 20-yard floated crosses to switch play are not usually one of them. This is a player who consistently produces accurate passes at a high volume; whether short, medium or long-range. But when your key strength manifests as a fatal weakness it is not a promising sign.
Usually his forte, Xhaka's careless use of the ball almost caused Arsenal to drop points against the weakest team in the Premier League. It was his awful attempt at a pass which was cut out to allow Cardiff to equalise on the verge of half time through Victor Camarasa -- even if Arsenal had chances to repair the damage before the ball hit the net, and failed to take them.
It was the only major aberration in an otherwise average display from the midfielder and in isolation any player can make an error -- even when, as in Xhaka's case, they are under minimal pressure on the pitch. But this notable lapse just adds to the weight of evidence when it comes to a player who has plenty of vocal detractors in the Arsenal fan base. Worse still for Xhaka, his replacement in the team seems blindingly obvious now.
When Lucas Torreira came on in the second half he barely put a foot wrong. The summer signing successfully completed all 26 of his attempted passes, made three tackles and even contributed an assist when he threaded a pass through for Alexandre Lacazette to lash the ball into the roof of the net on 81 minutes. The impulse is always to see a new signing in action -- when the incumbent is as consistently frustrating as Xhaka, the feeling is doubly as strong.
His error against Cardiff may have been unusual in just how catastrophic it was, but Xhaka has been testing the patience all season. He was taken off after 69 minutes of Emery's first game in charge, the 2-0 home defeat to Manchester City, and then hooked at half time of the following 3-2 loss away at Chelsea.
Emery has not been slow to enforce his will on the club and it seemed Xhaka was destined for the bench before he played 90 minutes of the two wins against West Ham and Cardiff. When Arsenal return after the international break, Emery should consider carefully the composition of his midfield. He has explored alternative combinations in attack and midfield with every passing game but Xhaka has been a constant in the starting lin-up. It is surely time to see how Torreira fares alongside Matteo Guendouzi.
It would not be a risk-free decision. For all his faults, Xhaka is very effective at moving the ball forward and belongs in the recent lineage of deep-lying playmakers like Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla. He is almost always top of Arsenal's passing charts for accuracy and volume. Furthermore, if Torreira does come in alongside Guendouzi it would be a very inexperienced midfield platform for Arsenal to work from.
But the risk could be worth it. Both players are far more impressive than Xhaka when Arsenal do not have the ball. Neither Torreira nor Guendouzi is the kind of character to meekly allow a midfield runner to drift past them. Both have shown more tackling aptitude than Xhaka, a walking yellow card. And if you wouldn't back them to quite have Xhaka's consistency in finding the right pass to progress play up the pitch, both have shown promise in their use of the ball.
There is a good argument that Xhaka would benefit most of all from having Torreira alongside him to do the dirty work. It's a combination which may have a lot of potential and Emery will likely try it soon.
But doing so now would mean curtailing the development of Guendouzi, who deserves a run in the team after applying himself excellently since his summer move from the French second tier. Xhaka, by contrast, has had long enough to prove he merits the untouchable status he has somehow accrued. And after two years we are still having the debate about whether he is up to standard.
Now, if Xhaka can't be trusted not to give the ball away in the middle of the park then the case for playing him becomes even more tenuous. There is an excellent player in there somewhere, perhaps a spell on the sidelines would help to bring it out. In the meantime, Torreira and Guendouzi would be a more worthy option.