“The idea of playing centrally is definitely something I like,” Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain told The Times in an interview last month. “When I got that opportunity at Arsenal I enjoyed it. I liked having more of the ball. The main reason I came here was the understanding I’d be playing further up the pitch and in a more attacking role, and more opportunities centrally to express that.”
At a time when we’re doubting most other aspects of Oxlade-Chamberlain, it’s at least reassuring to know that his memory is not in any doubt. Oxlade-Chamberlain has only started four league games in central midfield since December 2014; Arsenal lost two and drew another of those four matches.
It does feel pretty uncharitable to criticise any English player for having confidence in his own ability, particularly at a time when so many players in our national team wilt miserably in international tournaments. Yet it’s hard not to be straight-talking on Oxlade-Chamberlain: his career is stalling.
Liverpool’s new midfielder started for England against Slovenia before he had even started a league game for his new club. If this was an opportunity for international form to bring club minutes, he let it slip.
It might be that Oxlade-Chamberlain reinvents himself into a fine player at Liverpool, and he has been there weeks rather than months, but it is equally true that a reinvention is needed. Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived at Arsenal as a 17-year-old winger, an exciting attacking prospect from arguably the best academy in the country and the son of a former England international. There are no better ingredients for creating the perfect recipe for goodwill.
Seven years later, Oxlade-Chamberlain left Arsenal as a jack of all trades, half jaded at 24. Part attacking midfielder, part winger, part central midfielder and part wing-back, but mainly part-timer.
Crucially, he did not leave as a success. Arsene Wenger would no doubt preferred to have kept him and seen a new contract signed, but only because Oxlade-Chamberlain was useful back-up in a number of positions and a homegrown player with a seemingly level-headed personality.
As he became touted for moves to Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, you wondered quite whether anyone was being realistic. Oxlade-Chamberlain has left one club with top-four ambitions where he was struggling to make an impact, and joined another.
In fact, Liverpool have more central midfield options than Arsenal, particularly given the struggles for fitness of Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. Not every new signing can hit the ground running, but Oxlade-Chamberlain has jumped from frying pan to fire. Nobody is that surprised, least of all Liverpool supporters.
There is an argument that Sadio Mane’s injury actually lets Jurgen Klopp off the hook regarding his team selection against Manchester United this weekend. Klopp picked all four of his first-choice attackers against Newcastle, with Philippe Coutinho effectively playing as an auxiliary forward despite being nominally picked in central midfield. That left an awful lot of work for Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson to protect a ramshackle defence, as demonstrated in the time and space Jonjo Shelvey was afforded to pick his pass for Newcastle’s equaliser.
Mane will be sorely missed, but perhaps more against other opponents than against United. It allows Klopp to pick Salah on the right, move Coutinho into the wider, more advanced position he enjoyed last season and play an extra midfielder to guard against the counter-attacking pace of Jose Mourinho’s team.
This could be Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chance to shine. The idea of picking him as one of the three central midfielders, slightly ahead of Henderson but able to interchange with Wijnaldum, is an attractive one not just to him but also possibly Klopp. With his experience of playing as a wide attacking midfielder, Oxlade-Chamberlain can easily dovetail with Coutinho too. Both would be comfortable in the other’s role, and Liverpool could press high, try to win possession and immediately create the overlaps that Klopp values so highly in chance creation.
Klopp’s other option is to play Emre Can over Oxlade-Chamberlain and give more steel to his midfield, but Liverpool have been at their best in the biggest games under Klopp’s management when playing to their strengths rather than trying to contain those of the opposition.
Oxlade-Chamberlain must be desperately hoping that he wins the selection battle, not just for his immediate happiness but more long-term prospects at Liverpool. Can he really hope to play in central midfield over Liverpool’s current options when fit, or in an advanced midfield position over Klopp’s band of attacking brothers? Is he really aiming to compete with Coutinho for a place?
With Mane out, Adam Lallana injured and Naby Keita not coming until next summer, there is a growing sense of ‘if not now, then when?’ about Saturday’s match for Oxlade-Chamberlain. And if not now, then why did Liverpool buy an out-of-form Arsenal squad player with ten months left on his contract for £35m?
It’s a question we might hear regularly this season, particularly when behind Oxlade-Chamberlain’s preferred position is a defence in desperate need of major surgery: Did Liverpool really pay all that money for a man to be saved for the small occasion?