Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tactics Column: Oxlade-Chamberlain ready to take centre stage

If there has been one positive in this bleak period of football for Arsenal, then it has to be the re-emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a central midfielder. Indeed, it seemed for a long time that the idea of playing him there was put on the back-burner – shelved even – as he stuttered, and sometimes stumbled, to find form on the right flank. This season, he was deployed for a brief period on the left wing and for a while it seemed to reinvigorate the team as he mixed his game up well. Two wins though, against West Ham and Bournemouth, were followed by chastening back-to-back defeats to Everton and Manchester City and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s short-term future was again in limbo.

As it happens, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recast in central midfield is a result, not so much of a sudden, piercing insight from Arsene Wenger, but from the luck and happenstance that often shapes his team selections. Iwobi, Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin are the most recent players who have benefited from this (mis)fortune, whilst even Santi Cazorla’s reinvention in the central midfield owed to injuries, and Oxlade-Chamberlain could be the next to profit.

However, even if he doesn’t hold down a permanent place in the middle, it shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Instead, a successful run in the side, as he so far shown, should establish his claim as Arsenal’s go-to man, the jack-of-all-trades with an incisive edge.

In that case, it might be best to view Oxlade-Chamberlain as someone who probably doesn’t have a settled future but rather, is the type of player that thrives on being shuffled around in different positions. Of course it’s true, we’ve often heard the saying that versatility has been to the detriment to certain players but it’s usually spoken with a sense of regret, of a career unfulfilled. Young Wayne Rooney springs to mind; though even then, he still became a bloody effective footballer. The Ox therefore is probably more a late Wayne Rooney, with young-Rooney’s physique – a high-class utility man whose great distinction, what makes him more than a utility-man, is his Gareth Bale style runs.

Saying that probably touches on the high expectations that come with young, English talent, and in Oxlade-Chamberlain’s case, it seems as if we’ve been anxiously waiting for this exalted breakout moment when in fact, he has already arrived, and has been here for a while now. His best performances are testament to that: as a teenager in central midfield against AC Milan, then later against Bayern Munich whilst he also delivered a brace in that position against Crystal Palace in 2013/14. And in right midfield, scoring another double in a 6-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, and against Bayern again in 2014.

There have been many breakout moments then, though perhaps none that can be really considered to be truly breakthrough. That requires a bit of consistency and maturity, which encouragingly at least, Oxlade-Chamberlain has shown in this run of games,

Against Bayern, Oxlade-Chamberlain was used as a big-game right-winger, whilst in the other 6 games in this period, he has played in different central midfield roles; as part of a pivot versus Chelsea and Hull, and as an “interior” against Southampton. Indeed, in the League Cup earlier this season, he even played as a number 10. This versatility gives Arsene Wenger more options and potentially answers one of the questions, should the manager choose to use it, on how to use Mesut Ozil in big games.

The solution would be to use him in a shuttling right-wing-midfield role which allows him to cover for Ozil ahead of him in a 4-3-3. It’s a suggestion that’s been made by a number of people, the thinking behind that being that Arsenal need a more robust possession style that leaves them less susceptible to performances such as the 5-1 Bayern away, or the 2-0 Chelsea loss. However, that’s also fanciful thinking because any recommendations of how Arsenal should play to shore up their playing style, need to take full consideration of Wenger’s philosophy otherwise they’re futile and a waste of your time (or maybe it’s your idea of fun, if assorting players into positions on the field is your sort of thing).

For Wenger, any model of play must retain a sense of catering for audacity. It requires the players to interpret the spaces, and when fully synchronised, they can bounce passes quickly off each other. It can explain why Arsenal often struggle to find fluency, not really spacing themselves in a way which effectively benefits the attack. Guardiola explains this best when he says, “offensively, the way you attack is open. In some parts of the pitch of course you have to be creative and take the chance. But I don’t like it when people say: ‘I like freedom; I want to play for myself.’ Because the player has to understand he is part of a team, with 10 other players. If every player plays like a jazz musician, it will be chaos. They will not be a team.”

The 4-3-3 perhaps offers the best spacing between the players but the build-up will still remain highly idiosyncratic. It works against the majority of teams because Arsenal have the superior quality, but their record in the big matches is much different. What’s worse is that their approach is exposed in these games, especially as we saw against Bayern Munich, and before away to Man City, the team eschewing possession when they have it by going long, further exacerbating the issue they have without it.

At Munich, it’s true Arsenal truly imploded once Laurent Koscielny went off. He provides the leadership, but his style also typifies the way The Gunners defend, always looking to attack the ball in front, but can be fairly sub-standard when it requires them to drop back.

It’s the type of defending though, that Oxlade-Chamberlain excelled at, showing that he has the diligence to play in the middle. Indeed, what’s most impressive about his defending is that he does it with pace. Roberto Mancini mentioned this particular quality of Fernandinho when he produced a man-of-the-match display in 2013 in a 6-3 win over Arsenal.

Oxlade-Chamberlain did this with good effect especially when the ball became loose and he was quick to pounce on it and then drive forward. It’s envisaged that once he gets better adjusting positionally, he can use this pace to move side to side in a tight unit, and then nip into to recover possession. The other parts of his game are already there: the discipline, awareness, vision and passing-range. And with the unique way that Arsenal build-up, his ball-carrying ability can alleviate some of the team’s flaws.

In any case, the future looks promising once again for Oxlade-Chamberlain with Wenger saying: “I think he’s a good flank player and a good central player. But the future, personally I would say is more central than on the flank for him. When you’re young you want to push towards the flank. Why? Because central demands more experience, more tactical planning. Naturally, I think he is comfortable to be always involved.”

Now the next aim for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to continue being involved – whichever position he plays.

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