‘What’s eating Alex Oxlade Chamberlain?’ It’s a question that has been, well, eating large swathes of the Arsenal fan base for some time now. Since signing as an exciting 18 year old in 2011, The Ox’s seasons seemed to take on a familiar arc. Brief flashes of promise, punctuated by long spells on the side-lines. An exciting cameo or two would be swiftly followed by pregnant, injury filled pauses. It seemed as though physical fragility stood between him and a glittering Arsenal career.
However, last season, a different story emerged. Between August and February, he pretty much stayed fit and played regularly, yet his performances were impoverished. It’s a symptom of how quickly modern football moves that Chamberlain is now widely written off, having really only enjoyed six months of prolonged availability in his Arsenal career.
I admit that the esteem that I have long held him in has begun to wane and, of course, physical vulnerability is as good a reason to dispense with a player as poor form. It’s also just as accurate to suggest that Chamberlain’s only prolonged period of fitness begat a spell of hapless inconsistency, making it entirely reasonable that scepticism has found fertile ground in the Gunners support with regards to his potential.
Originally, Ox looked like an exciting addition to the Gunners’ attacking arsenal. He arrived in the post-apocalyptic fallout of the sales of Nasri and Fabregas. Andrey Arshavin was still a valued first team player, the midfield pivot consisted of the likes of Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song (the latter was replaced by Santi Cazorla a year later). Arsenal were still a very technical side; it took the signing of Mesut Özil for them to really chase away the ghost of Fabregas and the slower, more deliberate style that he demanded to flourish.
Within that framework, Chamberlain looked like a welcome shot of caffeine. His direct push and run style, together with his ability to shoot from range with both feet was the iron fist inside Arsenal’s otherwise velvet glove. His issues can really be traced back to the signing of Alexis Sánchez, who offered a lot of Chamberlain’s directness and devil may care, Tasmanian devil stylings. Only the Chilean offered quite a bit more end product too.
The town ain’t big enough for the both of them to co-exist on opposing flanks. Generally speaking, you need a technical counterbalance across from a player like Alexis, which has allowed Alex Iwobi’s promise to flower. Last season, Chamberlain, once a hit of Sambuca in a team of wine tasters, found that his skillset was far from unique.
Arsenal lost the likes of Cazorla, Arteta and Wilshere simultaneously. The Ox often played in a front three alongside Giroud and Walcott, in front of a central midfield pairing of Flamini and Ramsey. It’s hardly the most creative setup and the chemistry was no longer complementary. Chamberlain found himself in a team that was not balanced to get the best from his attributes.
I think this is why, in part, Wenger has persisted with him this season, despite his underwhelming form. Chamberlain has only had one season where his form was consistently poor; and as I have said, the conditions were not ideal for him in that scenario. In other seasons injuries could at least partially explain why he failed to establish himself. However, there is little doubt that he is drinking in last chance saloon now; his contract situation rather forces that point.
Wenger seems resolved to give him every chance to earn another contract, but I think his continued selection is also informed by a lack of choice. Arsenal have numbers in terms of wide options, but all except Alexis are sprinkled with caveats. Walcott is erratic, Iwobi is talented but raw, Ramsey does not want to play out wide, Wilshere (himself not even a wide player, really) and Campbell have been loaned out.
Ox is very close to Arsenal’s starting XI because Arsenal aren’t especially strong in this area and I think that will become apparent in the coming months. Realistically, for Arsenal to challenge for and win the Premier League, Iwobi, Chamberlain and / or Walcott are going to have to have good seasons at the very least. One of them will probably need to have an excellent season and it would be a brave man to back Alex as that particular horse.
He is in a contract year and it is only September, the manager is, for want of a better phrase, stuck with him for this season at least. So Wenger probably thinks it is worth trying to eke some form out of him in that time. If Chamberlain’s confidence is still in the toilet by the New Year, he may compare Ox’s travails against the development of the highly rated Jeff Rene Adelaide. Over the past two seasons, Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi have emerged as first team players during the second half of the campaign, Arsene may think that The Jeff can extend this pattern if Chamberlain continues to under-deliver.
There is something of a method in the manager’s selections so far this season, in that he prizes players that enjoyed a full pre-season. The likes of Walcott, Coquelin, Cazorla and Iwobi have been heavily involved. Chamberlain falls into this category too, which further explains why Wenger has perhaps been generous to the ex-Southampton man. Chamberlain enjoyed a fruitful pre-season, but as we saw a year ago, that provides few guarantees.
I think part of the reason he enjoyed good pre-seasons in 2015 and 2016 is because Alexis Sánchez did not participate in many of the friendlies in either of those summers. The Chilean is one of the big road blockers for Chamberlain’s future due to their similarities- maybe Ox’s future is tied up with Alexis’, who has also entered the contractual ‘red zone’ of two years before expiry.
Oxlade is also probably slightly fortunate that Arsenal have found it so difficult to buy a bona fide wide playmaker in recent seasons. There is circumstantial evidence, to differing degrees, that Wenger has explored moves for Draxler, Mahrez, Reus and Götze in recent seasons. Had the club succeeded in any one of those moves, Chamberlain may already have been disposed of- or at least had his role reduced.
It is obvious that Arsene Wenger has a lot of faith in Chamberlain’s ability and that he backs him to redirect his career trajectory for the better- for the time being at least. Arsene did something similar when Aaron Ramsey’s form was circling the u-bend in 2012. There are many things that have conspired against Ox during his Arsenal career which have prevented him from realising his potential- injuries, uncomplimentary team structure.
But Arsenal’s failure to close deals for established wide options has worked hugely in his favour. His confidence looks incarcerated at the moment and it is up to him to bend the bars back on that cage. He’s running out of chances.
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