It was a sadly symbolic moment for Arsenal. Granit Xhaka was caught in possession by Victor Wanyama. Tottenham surged clear, Gabriel fouled Harry Kane, and the striker scored the penalty. Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal. There was no way back for the Gunners, not in the game and not in their private battle for supremacy in North London. Arsenal won that duel in 21 successive seasons but not in 2017.
It made for a convenient snapshot for those who want to trace all of Arsenal's issues back to Xhaka. He might make for an easy scapegoat, and it is unfair to identify one man as a lone cause of a collective malaise, yet he has come to epitomise Arsenal in the wrong respects. They have regressed as others have progressed, getting further away from winning the title with a player who was supposed to help complete the jigsaw.
Symbolically, Xhaka is a big-money buy, a sign that Arsenal's current struggles are not occurring in their age of austerity. The comparison with Wanyama is both telling and unfortunate for Xhaka. Both joined last summer, with the Spurs' man costing around one-third of the Switzerland international's £35 million fee. Wanyama has powered Tottenham forward. Xhaka, arguably, has dragged Arsenal back.
Nor do wider evaluations flatter Arsene Wenger's 2016 flagship signing. Chelsea bought N'Golo Kante for a slightly smaller price than Xhaka, have already taken 31 more points than they did last season, and have seen their new star crowned PFA Player of the Year. Everton recruited Idrissa Gueye for just 20 percent of Xhaka's cost. They, too, have kicked on and could yet snatch sixth place from Arsenal.
Kante and Gueye score famously highly on the statistics. It is nevertheless damaging that, in an assessment of the quartet's numbers, Xhaka figures fourth for both tackles and interceptions. He is only close to Wanyama.
Along with Wanyama, Xhaka is the joint top scorer of the four. It is typical of Arsenal to have a nominally defensive presence with more attacking ability and Xhaka's capacity to score from long range, as he did in consecutive September games against Hull and Nottingham Forest, sets him apart from his supposed peers. So does his disciplinary record. Gueye, Kante and Wanyama have a combined 32 yellow cards this season. None has been sent off. Xhaka has been, twice for Arsenal and once more for Switzerland. His most recent dismissal, against Burnley, prompted Wenger to advise him not to tackle. Both red cards made what should have been comfortable home wins fraught affairs. They felt very Arsenal occasions.
Defensive midfielders should not be mercurial figures. In a position in which others have certainty, Arsenal possess an enigma. It helps account for their unpredictability. Once again, however, it is surely not all Xhaka's fault; at times, he looks like a player in need of the kind of in-depth tactical direction Wanyama and Kante receive.
Xhaka might be a face of Arsenal's more chaotic approach. He is also a victim of it. His counterparts have forged alliances -- Wanyama with Mousa Dembele, Kante with Nemanja Matic -- that have brought understanding and cohesion. Xhaka has had no such successful sidekick, merely combinations of individuals. Arsenal went unbeaten in the five games he started with Santi Cazorla, but the Spain international's subsequent injury has only underlined how he, not the £35 million man, is the pivotal figure in the Arsenal midfield. The only established partnership remains Cazorla's with Francis Coquelin.
Arsenal's record is particularly poor -- five wins and four defeats in 13 games -- when Coquelin is paired with Xhaka, and it was telling that Wenger explained the recent switch to 3-4-2-1 by saying that his side required more "solidity." Providing it ought to be a defensive midfielder's job; instead, with one, and sometimes two, in the side, he still brought in a third centre-back. Given two decades of devotion to the back four, it was a sign that plans were being ripped up after Xhaka's arrival.
It is worth rewinding a year to when it felt they needed only fine-tuning. The widespread theory then was that Arsenal needed only three high-class players -- a forward, a centre-back and a defensive midfielder -- to stand a fine chance of becoming champions. If the same question were posed now, what would the answer be? Six? Seven? Eight? Whatever it might be, a defensive midfielder would probably rank high up most lists. A man signed as a solution has become a problem.
It highlights the way Xhaka has been the wrong sort of catalyst. Arsenal have gone from second to sixth position since he signed. They win 55 percent of matches when he features and 67 percent when he does not; they lose 25 percent when he plays and 22 percent when he does not. The statistics suggest an emblematic figure has made an impact, just not the desired kind.
Wenger's central midfielders have often been symbolic figures. Patrick Vieira was the man who married the warrior spirit of George Graham's defence with the attacking ability of Wenger's flair players. Cesc Fabregas signified the shift toward diminutive technicians and youth. Jack Wilshere brought the vision of a brighter future that never arrived. Cazorla, without being bracketed alongside Wenger's genuine greats, stylishly staved off decline.
Then Xhaka joined, and it was fast-tracked, amid confusion about his role, indiscipline and expensive underachievement. Wenger's Arsenal had a 100 percent record of finishing in the top four without him and, seemingly, a 100 percent record of finishing outside it with him. Without being the only issue, Xhaka has become the personification of Arsenal's problems.