Granit Xhaka deserves his share of criticism, but he looks set to blossom at Arsenal
If Harry Kane has been saddened by some laboured memes, a glut of dad jokes and one cheeky tweet, he should count himself lucky not to have been subjected to the kind of rant Graeme Souness aimed at Granit Xhaka on Sunday.
Souness, working as a pundit for Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Premier League, demolished the midfielder with a sustained assault on his very makeup as a footballer. Xhaka was a "fool", Souness said. The midfielder's defending for Paul Pogba's goal was "what you see on a park from the under-12s," and to top if off, Xhaka and his teammates were "naive in the basics of football."
No please, Graeme. Tell us what you really think.
It was not unfair to highlight Xhaka's role in the goal. His comically bad attempt at a sliding challenge on Pogba was easily negotiated by the United midfielder and he decided to stand back and watch as Pogba then latched onto the rebound from an Alexis Sanchez header that hit the post to tap the ball in. To cap it off, his reaction to the goal, nervously looking to ground and adjusting his shin pads, was the last resort of the five-a-side scoundrel who hasn't bothered to track back.
Furthermore, it's not the first time he's been guilty of doing this. In the 2-1 defeat away at Watford in October, Xhaka looked on implacably as Tom Cleverley stole in to score a late winner for his side. He was by no means the only offender in the shocking 4-0 defeat to Liverpool in August, but Xhaka was one of a handful of players called out by name by Gary Neville, who branded their lack of interest in tracking back as "absolutely disgraceful". In fact, Xhaka's "greatest hits" have even been compiled into a list of shame.
A professional player should not be showing such a lack of interest in doing the basics. And Souness was completely right when he identified that a lack of accountability has allowed this fault in Xhaka to fester. After the critical mistake he made against Watford, Xhaka started the next Premier League game.
"Nobody has pointed a finger at Xhaka to say: 'Stay on your feet, you fool,'" Souness said. "It's the basic things. I could have done that once in my career at Liverpool and I would have been sitting on the bench watching the game until I learned that."
And yet, despite all these grievous errors and character faults, Xhaka has still been one of the most impressive performers in the second half of the season. While he is savaged on TV, this deserves to be recognised too. The move to a three-man midfield has aided this rejuvenation and, in Europe in particular, Xhaka has taken on an increasingly influential role. In both legs in the round of 16 against AC Milan and last week in the 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid, Xhaka was critical to some dominant performances against notable opposition.
Xhaka has inherited the role formerly filled by Santi Cazorla and prior to that Mikel Arteta. As a deep-lying playmaker, he keeps things ticking over in midfield by receiving the ball from the defence and setting the tempo. He has the ability to occasionally open up a defence like Cazorla with a searching ball into the box, but it is Arteta's mid-range passing that Xhaka arguably matches more perfectly, which likely explains why Wenger is such an avid fan of the Swiss star.
While operations in the final third are usually overseen by Mesut Ozil, Xhaka plays a vital role in Arsenal's approach play, particularly when switching play and trying to draw out and stretch the opposition. Floated 30-yard passes into the opposite channel might not be GIF-worthy, but probing of this kind is essential to how a team attacks. The man who has demolished the Premier League this season, Pep Guardiola, explained as much in the book chronicling his time at Bayern Munich, Pep Confidential.
"The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope," Guardiola said. "When you've done that, we attack and score from the other side. That's why you have to pass the ball with a clear intention. Draw in the opponent, then hit them with the sucker punch."
No one is arguing that Xhaka does this better than Kevin De Bruyne, whose imaginative and devastating use of the ball from the midfield has been one of the defining characteristics of the season. But after being brutally singled out for criticism on national TV, Xhaka would surely rather be judged on what he is, rather than what he isn't.
Who knows what Arsenal's new manager will think of Xhaka. But given the right platform, and alongside a player who does the kind of work that Souness demands -- a Francis Coquelin to his Cazorla -- Xhaka might be earning some rather more favourable reviews next season.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport