Arsenal must resolve their split personalities with accountability
If Arsenal is the meritocratic institution it has always professed to be, if any element of accountability exists at this club and if punitive measures are ever taken against Arsene Wenger's squad, then against Everton on Sunday, surely, there will be changes to the team which lost so disappointingly away to Watford last weekend.
It is not only that the performance at Vicarage Road, and especially a gut-wrenchingly passive second half, was so disappointing. It is also significant that a clear contrast has emerged between Arsenal's performances in the league and in cup competitions in recent weeks.
In the Premier League, Arsenal languish in sixth place having taken one pathetic point from four away trips, with another to come at the weekend. By contrast, in the Europa League their much-changed sides have delivered three wins from three to top the group, replete with away victories from two potentially tricky trips to Eastern Europe to face BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade.
The two competitions clearly do not make the same demands of players, and the standard in Europe is undoubtedly lower. Even so, two almost completely different teams have managed to look as if they have been hewn from two completely different clubs. Thursday's 1-0 win in Belgrade was a case in point: an unspectacular, often attritional battle which was settled by one moment of pure magic before Arsenal held on to win. Not exactly the story so far domestically where things, typically, have been rather more tumultuous.
Wenger, overseeing these two very different Arsenals, has always professed to be a meritocrat. "If you are good enough, you are old enough," has been the philosophy which has launched scores of teenage Arsenal careers, from Nicolas Anelka, through Cesc Fabregas, and right up to Alex Iwobi. We are talking about a manager who always repeated, to the point of it becoming almost a personal mantra, that he wasn't interested in a player's passport, only his quality. They are values that have served Wenger, and Arsenal, well.
But now the question of blind loyalty and accountability comes into play. It is almost paradoxical: Wenger has always been enthusiastic to give new talents a chance but he has also been far too stubborn to drop players when required. You think back to the move to the new stadium and the accompanying trophy drought as Wenger repeatedly talked of his fear that signing new players would "kill" his young stars -- that generation which had plenty of promise yet delivered nothing.
Even now his loyalty extends to rarely criticising his players in public or giving the impression that there are any repercussions for disappointing performances, let alone dismal ones. Now it is time to test that loyalty once again.
No one could claim Wenger had been heavy-handed if he chose to drop Granit Xhaka for the appalling dereliction of duty which saw him simply stand and watch as Tom Cleverley struck Watford's injury-time winner at the weekend. Such behaviour cannot be excused or indulged. It would send a much-needed message that such lapses will not be tolerated.
But if punitive measures are required, beyond Xhaka it is not easy to say where they should be felt. Yes, Arsenal kept a clean sheet in Belgrade but no one would seriously advocate for a back three of Rob Holding, Mohamed Elneny and Mathieu Debuchy to start a Premier League match. In any case, Per Mertesacker only recently graduated from cup to league duties and was one of the few players to emerge from the Watford game with any credit in his first Premier League appearance of the season.
Reiss Nelson has clearly made a good impression, too. As well as showing flashes in attack, he started to show in Belgrade that he is growing accustomed to the defensive side of the job at wing-back, making a number of interceptions and even blocking one goal-bound shot. Maybe there is a case for using him instead of Hector Bellerin, but it would be a big risk as the Spaniard was unlucky to give away the penalty from which Watford equalised and, in any case, is still a relatively young player on his own journey of development.
Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have both scored in Europe -- the former on Thursday with one of the best Arsenal goals of recent years, and the latter providing the assist -- but their inability to regularly influence Premier League matches in the manner Arsenal require has also been on display this season. For some years now, in fact. Alexandre Lacazette and the returning Alexis Sanchez can be safely assured of their positions.
However, there is one player who has made a strong case: Jack Wilshere. Man of the match again on Thursday night, he continued his magisterial midweek form with an influential contribution to Giroud's winner. Fitness allowing, he could reprise his role in a three-man attack at the expense of Iwobi and Mesut Ozil, or perhaps drop deeper in a reconfigured midfield with Xhaka dropping out.
Either way, reinstalling Wilshere to proceedings -- and dropping Xhaka in particular -- would send a message that performances do matter, that mediocrity cannot be protected by impunity. It would be proof that a meritocracy is truly in place at Wenger's Arsenal.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport