Four years after joining Arsenal, we’re still waiting for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s breakthrough moment. He needs starts, and fast…
“Towards the end of the season, something turned the screw,” said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last month. “I don’t know what. All of a sudden it went away as if nothing had happened.”
Arsene Wenger recently made the point that Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of lacking in belief when on the field, but it is not confidence to which the Arsenal midfielder is referring in that quote above; it is pain.
“There were times when I’d try to get up from the bed, or from sitting on the sofa, and was in so much pain,” Oxlade-Chamberlain continued. “It’s a big burden off me that I can play with that freedom and I’m not playing in pain.” Two years of pain of the kind that can so easily be consuming, eroding your faith that it will ever go away.
There are certain players who, even as a supposed neutral, you can’t help but root for. Oxlade-Chamberlain is one. He is young, he is exciting, he is English and seems relatively humble. After such rotten luck, the good will for him to come good on his obvious potential is growing. All the ingredients are there; now to switch on the oven.
Unfortunately for Oxlade-Chamberlain, football waits for no man. He has now been an Arsenal player for 50 months, and has started just 42 league matches. He is still firmly part of Roy Hodgson’s England plans, but no England manager can afford to be a choosy beggar when 67% of Premier League starters are non-eligible.
“It is a massive season for Alex,” said Wenger in September. “He is at the age now where he is getting picked regularly for the national team. He is picked by me as well for the team.” That’s not even half-true. Oxlade-Chamberlain has started two competitive international matches since May 2013. He has started four club matches out of ten in the Premier League and Champions League this season. Arsenal have lost three of those games.
There is something sad in Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping back into Arsenal’s first-team shadows after finally recovering full fitness. He is the club’s useful all-rounder, but being a utility man basically amounts to being first reserve in a number of positions.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s greatest asset is his dribbling, completing almost two more per 90 minutes than any other Arsenal regular last season. Yet his end product all too often fails to match the exciting build-up play, and there are also questions (which may be unfair) about his appetite to work back and defend. With Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez playing behind a striker, Wenger prefers to use Aaron Ramsey on the right. Energy trumps excitement when you don’t play with regulation wingers.
Theo Walcott had to change position, and Oxlade-Chamberlain may be forced to do the same. Wenger has long professed to have the answer to his long-term future. It was in March 2012 that he first spoke of him as a future central midfielder, reiterating the point last January. “His future will be in central midfield, in a deeper role,” Wenger said. “He has a good long ball and good quality to distribute and penetrate individually – very similar to Gerrard.”
That may be true, but we’re no closer to seeing the prediction as reality. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been given four starts in central midfield since the beginning of last season, but is yet to make one in 2015 – and that’s with Jack Wilshere unfit. Is he really the natural replacement for Santi Cazorla?
Oxlade-Chamberlain also suffers for his (lack of) reputation. He is a nice boy, quiet and unassuming. You can’t imagine him banging hard on the manager’s door and demanding to be played or else. Harder, better, faster, stronger would be his only response to adversity. There’s plenty to admire in that, but it enables Wenger to keep him as his very useful standby.
Still just 22, one must be wary of being too critical, yet it’s impossible not to worry about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s immediate future. He may be largely blameless, but that doesn’t alter the truth: More than four years after joining Arsenal, it still feels like we’re waiting for the breakthrough moment.