His Arsenal career might have only flickered to date, but with a good pre-season and an opening on the right, the Ox can push onto become a vital starter this season…
There’s a weird feeling amongst Arsenal fans at the moment. Recent summers of head-scratching, manager-slagging and player-selling have given way to comparative calm and, dare I say, optimism. As well as the obvious brilliance of Alexis, Mesut Ozil seems to have won round a lot of his (frankly, idiotic) doubters, Francis Coquelin has maybe made his manager re-think the idea of signing a defensive midfielder, and Theo Walcott’s strong end of the season, coupled with a new contract, had got everyone imagining him as the Henry heir apparent we all hoped he would be.
One man under the radar in all of this has been Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who despite seemingly having been at the club for an age, is still only 21. Arsene Wenger has already mentioned that this year’s pre-season will be important for Alex, given the absence of Alexis due to Copa America recovery, saying “He is not directly always in competition with Alexis because he plays more on the right side than the left, but it is a good opportunity for him because he is not injured.”
Chamberlain is, to my mind, still our best young player. Better than Wilshere, better than Ramsey, and given a run in the side, fitness permitting, he should be able to prove it. He’s more convincing at taking on defenders than Walcott, stronger physically too, and playing wide right the directness of his game would mirror that of Alexis on the opposite flank. At the same time, Ox doesn’t share the same level of individual exhuberance as Alexis, and so could be relied up to sit back if needed and play more patiently. That said, the image of the two of them charging at defenders like Pamplona bulls is enough to make any Arsenal fan salivate.
If Chamberlain has suffered from anything through his short career, it’s too much expectation from the fans. Despite him signing young his transfer fee was high, suggesting he’d challenge for the first team immediately. Flashes of brilliance didn’t necessarily give way to first team appearances, at a time when Arsenal seemed determined to tap the ball around the penalty area without getting a shot on goal. Then there were rumblings of shifting him centrally to perform more of a defensive, deep-lying playmaker role, after Song exited, given his ability to put a tackle in as well as deliver a final ball. As Arsenal’s shape has developed and solidified, there’s still always been an Ox-shaped hole in it.
Arsenal’s injury record is still the elephant in the room at the Emirates, despite the strides forward the team has made. As sure as daffodils by the side of the road and lambs gamboling in fields, when spring comes around Arsenal fans are sure to be looking nervously at their runners’ hamstrings, and pleading with their stars not to show too much of the ball to bruising centre-backs and Alehouse-enforcers. Chamberlain pulled up in February, and was kept out until the FA Cup final. The season before too he missed a significant period both at the start and at the end of the campaign, frustrating for him and even more so for the fans, with whom he’s always been a favourite – a testament to his obvious quality and the kind of player he is, namely, a technically gifted attacker who’s not afraid to put a shift in.
This season is different, it has to be different, and managing injuries and fitness is crucial in that. It’s hard to gauge exactly why we have this problem, but it’s too regular to be a coincidence, it must be a training ground issue, and if it’s not stamped out it could be the biggest roadblock to a potential title challenge. If it is address, then there’s nothing to stop Chamberlain from becoming a regular starter, as important as Alexis or Ozil. In truth, he is one player who shouldn’t have to worry about competition for places, because in that position his only natural rival is Walcott, who you’d think will be used more centrally.
So get him on the pitch, get him running at players and taking the mickey out of left backs. Get him shooting from range, firing in crosses and laying them on a plate for Giroud. He can do it, we all know he can do it, he just needs to show it. A title-challenging season would be the perfect time to start.