Continuing my series outlining my expectations and hopes for Arsenal players heading into the 2014/2015 campaign, I will today discuss Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. See here for the first post about Lukas Podolski.
There’s no denying that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has serious talent. Having burst into the team with a few dazzling performances early in 2012, the Ox looked a real star, especially when he showed himself well at the European Championships as a teenager that summer. But he has failed to lock down a place in Arsenal’s starting 11 due to untimely injuries and a congestion of players in his positions.
He has had a couple standout performances in the middle of park, notably in a Champions League match with AC Milan in 2012, but Arsene Wenger hasn’t regularly deployed the Ox in the position in which the manager insists the young Englishman’s future lies. There seems to be a reluctance on Wenger’s part to use Oxlade-Chamberlain in the middle, and it’s a bit perplexing at times. As a midfielder, his desire to pick up the ball and bring it forward with a directness not seen in many Arsenal players can be rather effective. His positional sense is also decent and will only continue to develop if he plays in the middle.
On the wings, an area of the field where Oxlade-Chamberlain sees the majority of his time, his willingness to drive at defenders causes major headaches. His pace is impressive for sure, but it’s his desire to go one-on-one that sees him create chances. He is always the most likely player to earn a penalty as well. But even on the wing, he’s best when he drifts inside. When he plays out wide, he can’t utilize the vision that marks his game in the midfield. He isn’t the best crosser of the ball, so what he’s limited to almost exclusively is pace.
Last year, a story emerged that stated that Arsenal had a clause in the transfer with Southampton that gave Oxlade-Chamberlain’s former club a sum every time he played more than 20 minutes. It cited a number of substitute appearances of just under 20 minutes. I doubt the report was true, but the stats were notable in and of themselves, as they showed that Wenger might be afraid of having the Ox on the field for too long. Maybe he’s avoiding the overuse that Jack Wilshere suffered from, or maybe he just thinks the young Englishman plays better in short spurts, but it’s clear Wenger isn’t ready to fully unleash Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Had he not injured his knee in the opening match of last season, 2013/14 might have been a season when he took a few steps forward. However, that injury and the groin injury he sustained at the end of the year made it a season that saw Oxlade-Chamberlain’s career stall. This year, competition for places is even steeper. But Oxlade-Chamberlain should be right near the first XI at all times. A single injury could give the Ox a much needed run in the side that could help him reach his potential.
If Wenger truly believes that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future lies in the midfield, I would like to see him playing there. With Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry all capable of playing out wide, the Ox should focus on playing in the middle. He and Jack Wilshere will be competing for the backup spot to Aaron Ramsey I would imagine, but both could also be options in the number 10 role.
I don’t think the Ox is going to have a great season statistically because I don’t believe he’ll have enough opportunities to start in midfield, but I think he’ll take a step forward as a member of Arsenal’s squad with improved fitness and a steady stream of impactful substitute appearances on the wings. Ideally, he would get playing time elsewhere if he’ll be sitting on the bench in London, but I don’t think Wenger would ever loan him out at this stage of his career. It’s going to be a big year for Oxlade-Chamberlain, but we might all have to be patient to see him get his chance.
On a different Arsenal story, I was a little bit surprised to see the news about Arsenal youth academy player Thomas Eisfeld departing the club on a permanent transfer deal with recently-relegated Fulham. Eisfeld has been a favorite of mine since he joined the club from Borrusia Dortmund’s youth setup, so I am quite disappointed to see him go. He showed a knack for scoring goals from the midfield, both in preseason games with the first team and in under-21 games, and was tremendously exciting to watch
However, it was notable that despite Eisfeld’s goalscoring talent, Wenger didn’t seem inclined to give him a chance at Arsenal, rarely giving him a spot on the bench in first team matches despite his regular participation in training. Fellow German youngsters Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem were offered chances ahead of the older Eisfeld. So with Eisfeld turning 21, thus forcing Arsenal to use a 25-man roster spot on him because of his foreign passport, Wenger rightly gave him his chance elsewhere.
I would have liked to have seen him go on loan for a year rather than signing a permanent deal, but there might be a buy-back clause we don’t know about. However, I think it’s pretty clear Wenger doesn’t believe Eisfeld possesses the quality necessary to star in Arsenal’s crowded midfield, and if there isn’t a place for him, selling him so he can continue developing at a young age is the right thing to do. I wish Eisfeld all the best at Fulham, and I will be eagerly watching his play over the coming years.