Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain future at Arsenal up for debate this season
There is a thin line between being candid and gratuitous in punditry. Being asked to critique the performance and psychology of players every week invites flirtation with that dividing line, and it was one that former Liverpool player and manager, Graeme Souness, teetered on the edge of during the weekend.
Souness made headlines when mounting a very pointed criticism of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on a day when the midfielder scored the second goal in an important 2-0 win at Bournemouth. An eruption of quality, Oxlade-Chamberlain stroking home a wonderful shot from Aaron Ramsey's pass, only provoked searching enquiries as to why he does not produce such moments more consistently.
The question is unquestionably a legitimate one, but the way Souness attempted to answer it made for stark viewing. It even brought to mind Chris Waddle's famously acerbic observation of Theo Walcott: "He just doesn't understand the game. I just don't think he has a football brain."
But it is not Oxlade-Chamberlain's intelligence which Souness doubts, rather the seriousness with which he treats the game and the desire he exhibits.
"Does he [Oxlade-Chamberlain] take it seriously enough? He always seems to be a bit of a joker," Souness said on Sky Sports.
"There is a player in there. It's stand up and be counted time. He's 22, he should not be accepting, with the quality he has, sitting on the bench and being a bit-part player. You've got to be banging down the manager's door and saying 'I'm ready for this.' Is he prepared to do that? I see him laughing and giggling a lot [in interviews]. I'd want him to be a bit more serious and angry and upset with me, if I was the manager leaving him out."
It is becoming a consistent stick with which to beat the 22-year-old, who was also on the receiving end of criticism from Arsenal fans recently when he was filmed dancing and mucking around ahead of the 0-0 draw against Southampton.
The clip, tweeted by Arsenal, was described as "the evidence the Ox will never make it," by one disgruntled supporter, with another observing that "Tony Adams would have killed him if he saw that as captain."
The instinctive reaction is to write these comments off, and those of Souness, as frivolous and unjustified criticism. After all, football teams have always had practical jokers. In that sense, Oxlade-Chamberlain is merely playing a very well-established role, and an important one in terms of the dressing room dynamic. Where once the banter of the team's court jester would be performed in private, though, it is now being transformed into "content" for club TV channels and ammunition for the likes of Souness and those fans who won't tolerate enjoyment in the wake of a disappointing home draw.
But if Souness picking on Oxlade-Chamberlain's gregarious nature as evidence that the midfielder doesn't take football seriously seems a touch unfair, his complementary line of attack arguably has some worth -- that is, the suggestion Oxlade-Chamberlain does not get angry enough when he is not playing for Arsenal.
After all, the clip of him dancing in the tunnel came before a match in which he failed to even get off the bench, despite Arsene Wenger being desperate for a breakthrough at the Emirates. Looking at the season as a whole, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Oxlade-Chamberlain has acquiesced all too easily after being nudged off the ball when Mauro Zarate scored in a 2-0 win for West Ham on the opening weekend of the campaign and immediately losing the first-team spot he seemed to have earned with his goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield.
After all, Paul Gascoigne spent his career "laughing and giggling" in interviews, but he also trashed Glenn Hoddle's hotel room after being told he would not be in the squad for the 1998 World Cup.
Being outwardly jovial is not in itself a problem. But it takes on an unflattering hue if it is not backed up with the burning desire to convince your manager he is wrong to leave you out; if you just accept your fate. From a distance it is impossible to say for certain what motivations burn within Oxlade-Chamberlain, but some of what Souness had to say during the weekend had the ring of truth to it.
It may also have struck a nerve. There was an interesting piece in The Sun this week, carrying no quotes from the player but confidently asserting that "Arsenal star Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is fed up being Arsene Wenger's fall guy."
The headline described him as "sick and tired," with Oxlade-Chamberlain said to be "running out of patience on the Emirates periphery."
Coming in the wake of Souness' comments, it painted a rather different picture than that of the man dancing in the tunnel. It was certainly a conveniently timed reminder that Oxlade-Chamberlain is a serious man with serious ambitions; a player who doesn't just want to sit on the bench.
But the best way to prove it beyond doubt, and shut the pundits up, is to show that kind of fire on the pitch and make it so he can't be dropped.