Few Arsenal players have sparked more conversation, more strange fascination and, it’s fair to say, more frustration than Alex Oxlade Chamberlain this season. The Ox has been on the cusp of a breakout season since he joined the club in 2011. Perpetually, he has teetered on the precipice between potential and bona fide ability. In past seasons, injury always seemed to enervate his progress, tossing a spanner into the works just as the engine was revving nicely and the pistons began to purr.
“And every time I thought I’d got it made, it seems the taste was not so sweet.”
After a positive pre-season, culminating in a brilliantly taken winner against Chelsea in the Community Shield at Wembley, Chamberlain again seemed set to realise his potential. It hasn’t quite worked out for the ex-Southampton man as yet. His good pre-season form coincided with Alexis’ hiatus due to his exploits in Chile’s Copa América campaign. This is significant because Alexis’ presence presents quite the obstacle for Chamberlain.
They are similar types of player, front foot soloists that deploy a high risk / high reward style. Both will ultimately turn the ball over as they seek to commit players and both have a tendency to be loose in possession. It is detrimental to the balance of the side to have two players of this ilk on either flank and Alexis more than amends for his possessional tariff with his end product. Realistically, Chamberlain is unlikely to produce the same end product to justify his selection ahead of Arsenal’s Starman.
“So the days float through my eyes/ But still the days seem the same.”
Chamberlain has been afforded a run in the side of late due to the annual Arsenal injury crisis. With Alexis amongst the walking (hobbling?) wounded it seemed like a good a chance as any for the Ox to stake his claim. The issue for him as that the majority of the Gunners’ injuries have been to technical players. Cazorla, Rosicky, Wilshere, Arteta and even Welbeck, who rarely wastes a pass, are simultaneously unavailable. The consequence of this was laid bare in Arsenal’s basketball style encounter with Liverpool on Wednesday, where neither team could control the game. It was like watching a cabal of men chasing after an abandoned car as it rolls down hill.
At the moment, the team is staffed with colleagues that share Chamberlain’s ‘pedal to the metal’ tendencies. Ramsey, Walcott and Flamini are players from Alex’s college. As a result, Arsenal have lacked technical security, the sort of players that can help to appease the rhythm of a game, preventing them from turning into basketball-like affairs. This is a phenomenon @poznaninmypants and I predicted in the immediate aftermath of Santi Cazorla’s injury.
Whilst Chamberlain’s form has been undoubtedly iffy, the raw materials he is working with are not conducive. Not least because he has played on the left, the right and the centre of late, which is also not ideal for a player struggling for consistency. The deficit of technical players has seen Joel Campbell’s stock rise exponentially, he possesses qualities that the team really needs and, consequently, his confidence and stature has grown. Joel’s situation is almost the inverse of Chamberlain’s, as he has enjoyed a kind of economies of scale this season.
“So I turned myself to face me / But I never caught a glimpse.”
Theo Walcott has effectively been tasked with replacing Alexis. Not just in a literal sense, by taking his usual position on the left. But Theo is at an age where his end product is becoming more polished. He is more of a ‘moments’ player, as Alexis can be, slightly adrift from the team’s overall structure. (Indeed, sometimes Theo still has some pretty bad ‘moments.’) His brilliant curling shot against Manchester City was certainly an “Alexis-esque” jolt of inspiration.
End product is clearly the attribute that Chamberlain needs to improve upon. He turned 22 in August, but it’s often at age 23 that an attacking player begins to rack up the numbers in terms of goals and assists. Ramsey was 23 in his breakout 2013-14 season. Emmanuel Adebayor was 23 the season he hit 30 goals for the club. Thierry Henry turned 23 in the year 2000, when his Arsenal career exploded into orbit. Theo Walcott’s first 20 goal season for the club arrived in 2012-13 when he was aged, well, you get the point….
“Pretty soon now, you’re gonna get older.”
Prior to this age, young attackers tend to concentrate on observing the basics and I think this is a transition we are seeing in Oxlade Chamberlain right now. Long term, if Alexis and Walcott stay at Arsenal, it’s a transition he will have to observe out of self-preservation as much as anything else. I think there has been an element of low confidence to his play this season. Wenger himself has publicly questioned Ox’s self-belief.
“And my time was running wild / A million dead end streets.”
However, I also think he is trying to evolve into a more technically secure, tactically responsible player. Aaron Ramsey underwent a similar transformation, with a similar amount of difficulty, circa 2012. Alex’s defensive contribution still has some way to go, it must be said. His concentration levels provide reason for anxiety. In open play, we have seen him either lose the ball or lose his man in very costly situations.
His concentration levels are so poor in defensive situations, that he even lacks basic alertness at setpieces. Against Sunderland and Southampton (where he bizarrely ends up moonwalking away from his man) in December, he was heavily responsible for concession of goals at setpieces. I can understand a player briefly switching off or ball watching during a period of open play, where everything is moving so quickly. I can appreciate a man buffeting his way past you to attack a corner. I cannot fathom how a player instantly stares into space at the point that a corner or free-kick is delivered.
“Where’s your shame? / You left us up to our necks in it.”
Leaving that aside, I have the impression that Chamberlain is trying to smooth out some rough edges and refine the more unpredictable elements of his game. Using the whoscored website, I compared some of his numbers this season, compared to last to see if my impression held true. (Numbers acquired prior to Liverpool match).
|Pass success rate||81.4%||84.8%|
|Crosses per game||0.8||0.3|
|Key passes per game||1.5||0.8|
|Shots per game||1.4||1|
|Dribbles per game||3.6||1.6|
|Times dispossessed per game||1.2||1.1|
|Ball lost due to bad control per game||1.6||1.1|
“Gonna have to be a different man.”
His pass success rate has risen, but probably because he is taking less risks. His crossing and dribbles per game have fallen dramatically, as has his total number of shots per game. These might not be seen as positives and could be a symptom of low confidence. Yet Wenger’s approach to attacking football is quite scientific. Most long range shots don’t go in, most crosses are cleared with ease and dribbles often end up in turnovers, save for when attempted by the world’s foremost exponents of the art.
I think he is trying to become more mature in his decision making. A good attacking player is able to pick his moments and I think this is why Oxlade is trying to be a little more discerning. He’s clearly not there yet, despite attempting far fewer dribbles, he is being dispossessed roughly the same amount of times per match. His sole assist this season saw him force an own goal at Newcastle and his number of key passes per match is well down on last year. I believe this to be a mixture of confidence and simply of a player still locating his radar.
“Changes are taking the pace I’m going through.”
Talk of loan spells elsewhere are ludicrously misplaced I think, players really just need to play through these spells and Chamberlain has steadily, though not spectacularly, improved over recent weeks. If he can eliminate his defensive narcolepsy and continue to try and refine his game, eventually the confidence should begin to imbue his play again, as it started to against Sunderland on Saturday.
“And these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
If Ox can combine his more bombastic qualities with better decision making, we will have quite a player on our hands. But, as ever, there are no guarantees when it comes to player development, nor is it always a linear process. Time my change him, but he can’t trace time…..
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto