Making his TFN debut, Harry Wallace looks at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s struggle for the limelight at Arsenal…
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s career has been oddly inconsequential. He was uncapped when he was called up to the England squad for a major tournament. But this was Euro 2012, when Roy Hodgson had been hurriedly planted in the manager job. Everyone around the country, press and fans alike, swiftly agreed that this tournament was a free hit. There hadn’t been enough time to amass a plan, let alone a squad to fit it.
In the Euros Oxlade-Chamberlain would start the first game against France and make two late substitute appearances in the other group games, before being an unused sub against Italy. On his debut he was lively the few times he had the ball, as many young fresh-faced players are. However he was restrained by one of Hodgson’s now stigmatized formations against France, looking to protect in only his third game in charge. It was also partially due to Rooney’s suspension, and Oxlade-Chamberlain could count himself unlucky not to feature ahead of a slumping Ashley Young in later matches. But the whole tournament lacked the pressure or scrutiny that has formed such a bemoaned companion for England. Certainly it was no comparison to Wayne Rooney’s dazzling Euro 2004, or even Raheem Sterling repeatedly scaring Italian defenders in Manaus. The Ox’s official arrival on the international scene was barely even a sideshow.
A year later, England traveled to the hallowed Maracana to face Brazil. Following a characteristically tepid England first-half performance, Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Glen Johnson. He then scored a goal that was a god send to narrative-seeking writers covering the game, a stunning drive in the same stadium that his Father had played in 29 years prior. It was a magnificent moment, or at least as great as it possibly could have been. After all, it was merely an exhibition game that not many would quickly recall now.
The career Oxlade-Chamberlain has led has been constantly laced with misfortune. He started against Aston Villa on the opening day of the 2013/14 season, only to pick up a knee injury. It sidelined him for Arsenal’s pre-Christmas tear through the league, looking like genuine title challengers before 2014 rolled around. By the time Oxlade-Chamberlain returned, Arsenal’s participation in the title race had been extinguished. The only real distinguishing features of his season was a brace against Crystal Palace playing in central midfield and to mistakenly not get sent off by Andre Marriner.
Arsenal drew Bayern Munich in the last 16 stage for the second consecutive year in the 2013/14 season. What was even more notable was the similarity between how the tie developed with how it had done the previous season. At the Emirates, Arsenal had succumbed to another ruthless German performance. It left them with a 2 goal deficit to make up, resembling the one they had the campaign before. In the return leg, Oxlade-Chamberlain shone from his secondary position in central midfield. One particular moment is described here by Henry Winter, from The Telegraph:
With only 609 minutes of Champions League experience, Oxlade-Chamberlain controlled Per Mertesacker’s pass and left some of the most revered midfielders and defenders in Europe, a mix of champions of Europe and the world, tackling thin air.
First, he turned away from Bayern’s captain, Philipp Lahm, and sped a short stretch down the left with the ball controlled by his right boot, leaving Javi Martínez to slide in, seeking the ball.
Oxlade-Chamberlain slowed, deceiving Martínez, and cut inside. Lahm came back at Arsenal’s No 15, who again eluded him. Two touches, left and right, took the ball round Bastian Schweinsteiger. Thiago Alcantara tried to dispossess him but Oxlade-Chamberlain accelerated again, eventually stopped only by Schweinsteiger’s foul.
However the run and overall performance was in vain for Oxlade-Chamberlain, a 1-1 draw safely taking Bayern through. Arsenal were simply left to pick up the pieces of another miserable March evening. As Winter himself points out, the run lacked the impact of John Barnes’ famous meander against the Brazilians, but indicates the potential of the Southampton academy product.
Same stage, different year. Monaco were supposed to be an easy draw! Perhaps they were a preferable matchup, but increasingly for other sides, so are Arsenal. The night had already slipped away, but Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to contribute just before the end, coming off the bench once again. A fantastic curling shot reduced the deficit for all of two minutes. One of Monaco’s countless breakaways resulted in a third goal slammed in the faces of Arsena. They climbed out of a hole only to fall into an even deeper one. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal? It was another of his moments made irrelevant by the context of the night it occurred in.
Back in the Telegraph article Henry Winter writes,
From Maracana to Allianz, he never seems overawed by the size of the venue or quality of the opposition.
Funny then, that his best games and goals have come at the most insignificant points. Winter’s statement isn’t wrong, nor is it a fault of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s. Merely an interesting coincidence for one of the most talented rotation players in the Premier League. His playing time had been inconsistent until this season, yet he only produced 1 goal and 1 assist in the league. If you were to ask 100 Arsenal fans to name their ideal starting XI, he would probably feature in less than a quarter.
On the England side of things, it’s a little more promising. Despite some minor clashes, Hodgson continually selects Oxlade-Chamberlain and his versatility is valuable, although less so in a generally very adaptable squad. Last summer he suffered an injury at the worst time, sustained during a warm-up game against that he was actually playing extremely well in. As it happens, it put him out of the tournament altogether. These factors are what can alter a career just enough to throw it off course and push his potential out of reach.
No player wants the two words to describe their career be ‘oddly inconsequential’. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s career hasn’t been derailed, it hasn’t even stagnated. He just needs playing time and luck, both of which have been in limited supply for Arsenal. There are huge challenges that lie in the competition for places in both Wenger and Hodgson’s squad. Yet despite this it’s surely a matter of when, not if, he can make his mark on a night that really counts.
Originally published on The 3 Yard Screamer.