When Granit Xhaka arrived for a hefty £40.5million fee, many Arsenal fans had renewed hope for the future of their midfield.
The player, thanks in no small part to his name and disciplinary record, seemed to possess the physical aura the team’s centre had lacked since Patrick Vieira’s departure many years previously.
However, the Swiss put in a tepid individual showing in the Gunners’ latest underwhelming display. Indeed, it was his failure to track back that allowed Tom Cleverley to score Watford’s winner against his side at the weekend.
That last-minute goal clinched a 2-1 win for Marco Silva’s men, condemning Arsenal to their third win in eight Premier League games at the start of 2017/18.
Had they claimed victory, the Gunners would be enjoying top-four status. But, having lost, they are within touching distance of ninth-placed Newcastle United.
Xhaka’s failure to defend properly is not the only issue surrounding his performances since moving to the Emirates Stadium. He has also displayed an unwillingness or inability – or both? – to progress possession effectively.
The 25-year-old is Arsenal’s conductor. Within Arséne Wenger’s favoured 3-4-2-1 formation, he is responsible for receiving possession from the defenders and connecting play.
In an ideal world, he would also be tasked with threading through balls for the front three to benefit from, but this happens all too rarely.
Statistically, no other Gunners player comes close to Xhaka’s passing stats. He averages 82.9 passes per game; that’s an incredible 14.3 per game more than the second-highest contributor in this field: Nacho Monreal.
On top of that, he has attained a highly respectable 82.4 per cent pass completion rate in the league thus far. However, quality is more important than quantity. And while he makes plenty of passes, he doesn’t make enough important ones.
Forward passes are vital. Playing sideways and backwards only allow the opposition to retain their shape and apply pressure. In order to attack effectively, the midfield must play vertical balls through the opponents’ press.
Xhaka doesn’t do this nearly enough. Indeed, only 62.4 per cent of his total passes go forwards. For context, his rivals at Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United all have higher percentages in this respect.
Fernandinho, Eric Dier and Nemanja Matic play 67.2, 69.1 and 67 per cent of their passes forwards respectively.
Those three also best the Swiss midfielder in terms of backwards passes – their percentage of total passes played backwards ranges between 30 to 33 per cent; the former Wolfsburg man’s percentage is 37 per cent.
Arsenal tend to enjoy plenty of default possession, but they need to be more incisive with it. Otherwise, teams will continue to sit deep and defend against them without fear of the consequences.
Xhaka, the conductor, needs to step up not only to improve his team’s chances of scoring and winning, but to justify his expensive fee.