Arsene Wenger is the first person looked to when something goes wrong with Arsenal Football Club. As the most visible public figure at the club, and possessing an almost unique amount of decision making power for a manager in the modern game, he is at least partially responsible for most that goes on at the Emirates. This summer, amid all the talk of contract waffling and players leaving in droves, the only tangible subtraction to the club was the departure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to “take the next step in his career” (his words, not mine) with Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool, and boy was Wenger killed for it. However, just over a quarter of the way through the league season, would Arsenal have been any better off with the Ox still in the squad?
Oxlade-Chamberlain is undoubtedly a talented footballer, and to argue otherwise would be irresponsible, but if he were on this Arsenal team today, he would be the same place he is on Merseyside: the bench. While he undoubtedly possesses a useful set of skills, he does not excel enough at any one role enough to supplant a player in the starting XI. This itself is no terrible trait, as there have been many players, including fellow Red James Milner, to make a tidy living in the league because of their versatility.
What makes things worse for the Ox, and what Juergen Klopp is finding out in a very, very expensive way, is that he also possesses deep flaws at every position that have thus far prevented him from taking hold of one and making it his own. He is not nearly clinical enough, nor precise enough with his final pass to play in the front line, especially with the attacking talent at Klopp’s disposal. In the midfield, his preferred position, he has all of the physical tools a manager would want, as well as sublime dribbling ability, but he just doesn’t seem to have that natural instinct that makes all the best central players so good. If he had Jack Wilshere’s football IQ, there is no telling how incredible a player he would be, but his performances in the midfield seem almost disjointed or unnatural. He is decently effective as an attacking wingback, but as a fullback in a back 4, like Liverpool run? Have you seen him defend?
Forgive me if this is slipping into a bit of a slating, but for all the talk of the senile old professor running the show at Arsenal, it appears that he might have recognised this. Sure, he was effusive in his praise for the young Englishman at the time, and shoehorned him into his starting XI to the detriment of nearly every player on the pitch (except the opposing attackers), but Wenger had a better option at every single position, and could afford to let him walk, despite his clear emotional attachment to the player. Wenger nearly went as far as to destroy one of his favourite young players in the process, sticking Hector Bellerin out on the unfamiliar left side of his backline just as the Spaniard’s confidence was recovering from his heavily critiqued second half of last season.
Here now at the start of November, not only have Arsenal achieved a better balance in their starting XI than when Oxlade-Chamberlain was around, his replacement has become an instant hit with the Emirates faithful, and four fresh, young (and should I mention, British!) replacements lapping up minutes in Europe and drawing rave reviews in the process. Sead Kolasinac has been the most direct benefactor of his departure to date, as he has brought a whole new level of physicality and defensive competency to the left flank, all while being involved in a surprising amount of goals so far. Hector Bellerin is now back on his right side, and far from simply regaining his lost confidence, he is back on track to becoming one of the best and most complete fullbacks in Europe. The double pivot of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey has been a constant in Wenger’s team selection, and a healthy Jack Wilshere would likely have been the first alternative if trying to shake things up, not Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The improved solidity and balance in the first team has certainly a plus, but Arsenal fans have been given a gift wrapped in a turd this season with their fall down into the Europa League, with four of the club’s brightest talents being assured even more time to shine. The four players (Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah) together possess all of the traits and skills that made the Ox so important for Arsenal as well as adding a few more for good measure. Reiss Nelson is every bit the technical dribbler that his predecessor was, Maitland-Niles already more trustworthy in a defensive role and Nketiah more clinical in front of goal than the Ox has ever been. Joe Willock is a blend of all three of his teammates, and all four possess a quiet confidence that is vital to their continued progression. Having helped the club secure a spot in the next round of the Europa League, the young Gunners will be assured of even more playing time over the remaining two group stage games, perhaps joined by even more of their fellow Hale End alumni looking to break into the first team conversation.
So does this mean that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will never be as good a footballer as everybody seemed to think? Not at all, he is still young, but the months of benchwarming since his move to Merseyside have likely knocked his ego down a rung. At the end of the summer, with every big club in England registering at least a token interest in him, his manager lovingly rubbing warm massage oil into that same ego, a contract offer of £180k per week and the promise of playing time in the centre of the park, he perhaps could have been forgiven for being rather high on himself. Not so anymore. Here’s a stat for you: in seven appearances, he has played 80 less minutes for Liverpool in the Premier League than he had in 3 starts for Arsenal before leaving.
Next step Alex? Don’t be so sure. And as for Arsenal? Don’t worry about them mate, there’s four more where you came from.