The situation surrounding Theo Walcott’s contract has created a number of questions for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. Should he stay, one would imagine that no forward will be signed, unless someone who has the ‘super quality’ becomes available. If he goes, then it leaves something of a dearth of high end options in those positions, but still the bare numbers to get by without him.
If we consider that in Wenger’s eyes, Alexis Sanchez is a certified starter, Mesut Ozil is immovable in the number 10 role, Aaron Ramsey will probably be back in central midfield soon enough, and that together Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck have the centre forward battle covered, it leaves the opposite wing to Alexis as the one spare space in the front five. The Chilean is capable of playing on both sides, but for now, the boss seems to prefer him on the left.
Alexis is a fantastic player, and an huge asset for Arsenal, but he destabilises the setup somewhat. His individualism has unquestionable benefits (24 goals and 11 assists so far in his first season show that) but it can unbalance his teams. You need stability around him in order to bring the best out of the unit, as well as Alexis himself.
In the early part of the season, many of the injured were deeply missed, but Walcott was not really one of them. Part of that was Alexis, but another was the impressive start from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He and Alexis were among very few positives to take from the season before Christmas. The two complemented each other well, despite the struggles of the rest of the team. Finally, with a clear space in the team and fitness issues not standing in his way, he was beginning to cement his standing in the side.
Chamberlain is a real all-rounder. He can do almost everything to some extent. He is not an individualistic maverick in the Alexis mould, nor he is not a playmaker like a Santi Cazorla or Jack Wilshere either. He exists somewhere in between. There can be a brilliant subtlety to his play sometimes, while he habitually remains capable of running at and beating players.
Even though his playing style involves a lot of dribbling, he tends not to lose the ball (not nearly as much as Alexis, anyway). He can make the kind of runs that support Özil but also help maintain the ball in the final third, although that side of things will need a bit more work to really become a staple of his game.
The idea of Chamberlain replacing Walcott is somewhat fanciful; in reality, it is Alexis who has replaced Walcott. Alexis acts as the behind-the-line runner, the main attacking outlet and primary goalscorer, but with more strings to his bow than Walcott. Chamberlain’s challenge is to take on Santi Cazorla’s old role of the wide secondary playmaker figure.
Obviously he would perform the part in a very different way. With him in that position, you lose some of the stability in the final third that a Cazorla, or even Jack Wilshere give, but become a faster, more impulsive side, and better on the break. That has some drawbacks in games where slower buildup and possession play are more prevalent, but Chamberlain does not remove the ability to play like that, he just does not facilitate it in the same way those two do. Plus, his own individual skill can help break through those tougher defences.
Chamberlain’s main weaknesses are his inconsistency and end product, while fitness issues have been troublesome for some time, as well. His return of 3 goals and 3 assists in 29 appearances certainly leaves room for improvement, but end product is a problem for many younger players, and he has missed most of the time when there has been actual creativity in the side.
Regardless of whether next year’s first choice is Oxlade-Chamberlain, if Wilshere steps up into the role or someone of either style is signed, the need for control of the game higher up can be lessened with the correct defensive midfielder. Arsenal have barely controlled any games from the deep areas in Mikel Arteta’s absence, and there has been extra pressure on those further up the pitch to play towards this end. Alexis initially struggled, but has become better recently, and thanks in no small part to Ramsey’s steady influence from the right of late.
What that means is that unless that mythical heroic ‘DM’ who can do it all is signed, there is probably a situation where protection of the ball higher up becomes even more important. But if one is brought in, it leaves room to experiment with those attacking options on account of have a more solid base on which to build.
Should this happen, Oxlade-Chamberlain again really has the opportunity to explode. It is unlikely that Wenger will buy a certified first choice who would block Oxlade-Chamberlain’s, and indeed Wilshere’s best chances of nailing down a solid place, unless they were something really special. For example, if Marco Reus or Mario Gotze become possible, or even a less developed player like Julian Draxler.
It is a real pity that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury issues have prevented him from making that spot in the side his own in this more settled post-January setup. He has elements of his game to improve, but at just 21, he has plenty of time to do just that. The lack of distinct pattern to his injuries is somewhat heartening, but the fact he has missed a fair portion of all of the last three seasons is worrisome.
That being said, the opportunity is really there for him. Hopefully this season he will be able to have some impact ahead of the FA Cup Final. Walcott’s only real relevance to the overall situation is whether his potential sale will lead to a signing who blocks Oxlade-Chamberlain’s path; but in the versatile midfielder himself, Arsenal may well have the embodiment of all they could possibly be looking for elsewhere.