Michael Cox analyses the Arsenal midfielder's performances ahead of Sunday's meeting with Liverpool...
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t a typical Arsenal player. Whereas the majority of Arsene Wenger’s attack-minded midfielders are diminutive, creative and technical talents, Oxlade-Chamberlain offers something different: he’s direct, powerful and physical.
Therefore, the 21-year-old provides different qualities when Arsenal’s other players are being overrun, and Arsenal’s most recent league meeting with Liverpool – this weekend’s opponents – was a good example. Brendan Rodgers’ side thrashed Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield last season, and Arsenal’s only decent performer was Oxlade-Chamberlain.
With Mesut Ozil being hurried into misplaced passes by Liverpool’s energetic pressing, Arsenal couldn’t work the ball forward through their usual intricate, patient passing moves. Oxlade-Chamberlain, however, allowed them to drive forward with direct dribbling, winning a penalty from Steven Gerrard and allowing Arsenal to get a goal back. In the context of the result, it was barely a consolation. But Arsenal were being battered, and by forcing Liverpool back into their own half, the youngster prevented an even more embarrassing result.
Oxlade-Chamberlain also performed admirably during an FA Cup meeting against Liverpool the following weekend. Again, he caused Gerrard problems with his driving runs – and winning that battle must have been particularly enjoyable for the Arsenal midfielder. He idolised Gerrard growing up, and last season Wenger said that his player should consider the Liverpool skipper his role model – presumably in Gerrard’s former guise as an energetic, box-to-box midfielder. Oxlade-Chamberlain scored one, assisted the other, and seems to enjoy playing against Liverpool.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best position has often been debated since his move to Arsenal in 2011 – in fact, it’s rare to find an Arsenal youngster that isn’t in two minds about his optimum role. Initially many considered him a wide midfielder, as he was likened to Theo Walcott, but he has different qualities. He’s more feisty, more of a battler, and someone who relishes physical challenges.
Winning Arsene's trust
In truth, and unusually for an Arsenal player, his passing quality is naturaly his major weakness. He tends to offload the ball sideways, and more ambitious forward passes often go astray. It’s tough to compare him to any previous Wenger player – perhaps Ray Parlour would be the most accurate.
Wenger has gradually started to trust Oxlade-Chamberlain in a central position. One of his first Arsenal starts in that role came last season against Crystal Palace, where he scored both goals in a 2-0 victory. That performance was strange: although he was clearly the game’s best player, he wasn’t really playing like a traditional central midfielder – or, at least, not a traditional Arsenal central midfielder. He surged up and down the pitch, and his second goal was interesting, coming following a run from a much wider position. His finishing was very good, although his dribbling was wasteful.
He simply felt like a wide midfielder playing in a more narrow position – perhaps, for example, a little like when Raheem Sterling plays in the middle, albeit in a deeper position. Indeed, Oxlade-Chamberlain belongs to a generation of young Englishman who are exciting because they play such straightforward football. The likes of him, Sterling, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley are all footballers who prefer moving forward – in or out of possession – rather than keeping the play simple. Of course, part of England’s traditional problem is the inability to play patiently, slow the tempo and retain the ball, and too many of these players together will create a frantic, kick-and-rush side. However, these players all have technical quality and footballing intelligence too. For England, Oxlade-Chamberlain is a perfect fit.
Encouragingly, his decision making in possession is improving, too. This was his performance against Newcastle last weekend in a central midfield role – a huge number of recoveries, and a much higher success rate for his dribbles.
His passing, meanwhile, is becoming more direct and inventive. He plays some good, long forward passes into dangerous areas – whereas last season in central midfield, he often passed sideways.
Now entirely comfortable in the middle, Oxlade-Chamberlain is a useful tactical option. He can play centrally when Wenger wants power and mobility in the engine room, or out wide when his manager wants more guile in midfield, but needs someone reliable to tuck in and help out. It’s those type of reliable, professional, hard-working and versatile players Arsenal have often lacked in recent years, and therefore Oxlade-Chamberlain could prove one of the club’s most important players over the next half-decade.