Despite some improved performances from the midfielder, his costly lapse in concentration against Wolves was a reminder of his main deficiency
Granit Xhaka is an Arsenal enigma. Bought for £30 million ($38.6m) from Borussia Monchengladbach with the billing as the youngest captain in Bundesliga history, Xhaka has managed to turn in as many show-stopping performances as he has deeply frustrating ones.
No better was that illustrated than against Wolves on Sunday. The 26-year-old came into the match on a high having put in arguably his best performance in a Gunners shirt against Liverpool last time out in the Premier League.
Lucas Torreira’s arrival into the team has allowed the Switzerland international more freedom, and after a short spell filling in at left-back – with mixed results – his all-action showing against Jurgen Klopp’s side hinted at a player finally about to come into his own in north London.
He played the most passes of anyone on the pitch, made the most recoveries, most tackles and – along with Torreira – was the key in stopping last season’s Champions League finalists from playing their normal free-flowing game.
And yet against newly-promoted Wolves, it was Xhaka who became the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons.
Despite recording an 89 per cent passing accuracy against Wolves, his early lapse in concentration, having received an admittedly poor pass from Sead Kolasinac, allowed Ivan Cavaleiro to open the scoring for the visitors. Were it not for Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s equaliser four minutes from time it would have been an error that decided the match.
That was one of 29 occasions when Xhaka surrendered possession against Nuno Espirito Santo’s team, losing the ball on more occasions than any other player. Xhaka has now made five errors that have led directly to Premier League goals since his debut for the club in 2016. No player in the division can top that.
“He has a big commitment with us and also character,” said Unai Emery after being questioned about Xhaka’s latest error. “His performance with his quality is good for us. We need everybody. For me and for the team, we need more consistency. I think the most important thing is to build with confidence and creating little by little with very big work. I think we are doing it and Xhaka is doing this also.”
Xhaka’s lack of consistency is systematic of an Arsenal team that, despite impressing under Emery, continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
No top-flight team has made more individual errors leading to goals for the opposition since the start of last season (17) than the Gunners, and while a 16-match unbeaten run in all competitions is to be applauded, there is potential to do even more.
Quite how long Emery can be patient with Xhaka remains to be seen. His ability to provide a link into the final third is up there with the very best in the league while his recent free-kick against Crystal Palace only serves to highlight that he is a player capable of providing a moment out of nothing who could yet be the difference between a place in the top four or outside come the final knockings.
Despite lacking in experience compared to a player who has already represented his country at three international tournaments, the likes of Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles offer Emery viable alternatives should his patience with Xhaka finally wear out. Even Aaron Ramsey could slot in alongside Torreira, though with the Wales international set to depart the club next summer and Emery keen for him to offer an alternative to Mesut Ozil further forward, it is less likely he will be used as part of a two-man midfield axis.
The Emirates Stadium faithful might sing that they have their Arsenal back, but the defensive flaws that hindered Arsene Wenger in his final seasons in charge remain, with Xhaka still a chief culprit. Emery may soon need to make a call on whether such a feast-or-famine individual can be maintained within his ever-evolving side.