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Is blunder-prone Granit Xhaka partly a product of Arsenal's environment under Mikel Arteta?

Arsenal
(Image credit: PA Images)

Granit Xhaka took a touch and a look, presumably spotted the giant figure of Chris Wood and nevertheless contrived to chip a pass that hit the Burnley striker in the stomach and bounced into the Arsenal goal. Despite plenty of other incident, it finished Burnley 1 Arsenal 1; two points were dropped with one dreadful ball.

Typical Arsenal, perhaps. Typical Xhaka, maybe. Mikel Arteta launched into a defence of both his midfielder and a policy of passing out from the back. It had yielded Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s earlier opener on Saturday, he argued. Indeed, Arteta’s trademark goal starts in Arsenal’s own box and often involves their goalkeeper. 

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But it is conflating two different issues. It is worth separating a strategy of building from the back, passing in your own penalty area, dropping a midfielder in and splitting the centre-backs so they are in no position to prevent goals, from errors. It may be a high-risk, high-reward approach which is increasingly important for those with genuine aspirations but some do it while minimising mistakes: John Stones, a defender who used to be coached by Arteta and was long accused of taking poor decisions in dangerous positions, has been virtually flawless this season. 

There can be a cold, clinical element to Arteta. At times earlier this season, Arsenal seemed so structured that they were coached into sterility. But he is the perfectionist with wildly imperfect players. In particular, Arsenal seem more disposed to meltdowns, brain fades or otherwise inexplicable errors than anyone else. 

There may be no statistic to completely quantify it, but they have far the most red cards in Arteta’s reign; and, yes, sendings-off can be split into those that are more forgivable and those that really are not. Strangely and admittedly, Arsenal have conceded the fewest penalties this season, though they gifted the third most last year.  

But it is partly the manner of the self-inflicted problems. There was Bernd Leno’s red card for handling needlessly outside his box at Wolves, Nicolas Pepe’s dismissal for headbutting Leeds’ Gjanni Alioski, Xhaka’s expulsion for grabbing Burnley’s Ashley Westwood by the throat in December. Last season, David Luiz achieved a rare hat-trick at Manchester City: after coming off the bench, he gave a goal away, conceded a penalty and picked up a red card, all within 25 minutes on the pitch. Last night, a mix-up involving Leno and Dani Ceballos gifted Olympiacos a goal and a way back into a European tie that the Greek side didn't look like scoring otherwise.

Arsenal’s pratfall-prone status can be traced to two men in particular: Xhaka and David Luiz. Each has attributes to explain his presence in the team, but has reached such a stage in his career that it is unrealistic to expect him to rid himself of his erratic streak. Maybe there is a trade-off in accommodating flawed talents. 

Others’ missteps could be simply aberrations - like Eddie Nketiah’s red card against Leicester last season or Gabriel’s December dismissal versus Southampton - but couple rare errors from a host of individuals, with two players who are more liable to cost points and attempts at progress can be impeded. Arsenal have only taken five points from eight games under Arteta when they have been reduced to 10 or nine and while some of those are creditable draws in the circumstances, they have required more.

Perhaps the Spaniard has made steps to render them less inconsistent. The January departures of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos removed two of their more unreliable players. That David Luiz’s contract expires in the summer offers the chance to move on from a third. The harder part may simply be turning a team with a collective capacity to err into one that rarely shoots itself in the foot. While pragmatic managers from Jose Mourinho to Sam Allardyce base much of their game on eliminating errors, Arteta’s ethos entails more peril. But that need not result in the number of avoidable blunders that Arsenal make. 

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